DM Central Library as Public Architecture (updated)

I fear that we are losing the collective ability to create and appreciate good public architecture.

There are many facets to this argument. The one I will address in this post is the experience of a pedestrian arriving at and entering a public building. And what building could possibly be more public than a library, where citizens are invited in to browse through a collection of books (that they own collectively), host meetings, study, research, listen to music, use the internet, attend lectures.

Please note that this post does not address the how the building meets its internal program (how it performs as a library). Rather, it addresses how the building performs as a generic public building.

[Update, 6/5/2010: I recently had a conversation with a friend about this building. His assessment was that it "won't be still standing in 50 years". I think this assessment may be a little harsh. I'd like to think that we still know how to build and maintain a building to last more than 50 years.]

The Library and associated plaza take up the entire block between Grand and Locust and 10th to 12th, except for the southeast corner, which is the old Masonic Temple building that houses Centro (a FABULOUS restaurant - side note: my wife ran into John Edwards there prior to the caucuses).

Des Moines Central Library Loading Dock: This is the main facade as a pedestrian approaches from the east on Grand.Des Moines Central Library Loading DockOne of the fundamental characteristics of successful public architecture (particularly that which the public is intended to use on a frequent basis) is the creation of a gracious and understandable entry sequence:

  1. Visual cues tell the user which building to approach
  2. Approach the building as a pedestrian
  3. Understand where the entry is and how to get there
  4. Approach the entry
  5. Enter the building and understand where to go within the building

This is the main facade as a pedestrian approaches from the east on Grand. In order to approach the main entry the pedestrian must walk past the loading dock, essentially the building's ass.

From this direction, the easiest access to the entry is up the small set of stairs to the left of the sidewalk at the center of the photo above. The stairs start before the corner, so unless you are familiar with the building, you have passed them by before realizing that they are the easiest access to the main entry.

Des Moines Central Library Approach From WestDes Moines Central Library Approach From WestFrom the west, the main entry is not much more apparent. It is unclear whether one is supposed to turn right up the driveway or to continue straight. The reason this is confusing is that there are three potential entries visible from this vantage point: The book dropoff, the pickup window, and in the distance, the main entry.

Behind the bushes in this photo is the entrance to the underground garage. I have visited the library at several different times of the day, and never had trouble finding a street parking space. However until I read the web site, I had no idea the basement garage was a public parking area, or even existed at all!

It is worth mentioning at this point that the facade gives few clues as to the location of entry or the contents of the building - two of the key requirements for successful public architecture and understandable pedestrian access. From the outside during the day, it is not immediately apparent whether this building is a library or a Microsoft data center. The entire facade is composed of uniform panels of copper mesh sandwiched between layers of glass. Des Moines Central Library East EntranceDes Moines Central Library East EntranceThe idea behind this approach is to reflect damaging sunlight and prevent it from reaching the books on the inside, while still allowing people on the inside to see out through floor-to-ceiling glass. Ironically, allowing pedestrians to see into the building would help its relationship to the public realm, and the library patrons should probably concentrate on their work.

This is the entry from 10th Street, a relatively minor north-south street that cuts between Grand and Locust. This entrance accesses the public meeting rooms in the south wing and the main library to the north. It is set so far back from the street that it is not visible from Grand or Locust. There is no signage directing pedestrians to this entrance.

Worse, the entrance leads to the area shown in the photo below, best described as "early millennial parking garage" - most definitely not what I would consider a gracious and inviting entrance. The west entrance opens into this space as well, though approaching as a pedestrian from the south/west side is a much more pleasant experience past the fountain and through the grass plaza.

Des Moines Central Library EntryDes Moines Central Library EntryI am in general a big fan of contemporary architecture when it respects centuries-old understandings about the importance of public space, pedestrian access, and the necessary relationship between the two. I am not, in general, a fan of "statement" architecture unless it also meets the above criteria (which it usually does not).

First and foremost, a library should be pedestrian, inviting, and "public". If an architectural statement can be made within this framework, all the better.

So, where does this leave us? Well, we already have a building, so I'm left to armchair quarterbacking and second-guessing. But these are important issues for future downtown buildings.

Ignoring for a moment the architectural statement that the copper panels make, there is no reason that the north facade of a library building should be treated the same way as the others - sunlight infiltration is much easier to deal with on a building's north face. This opens up (so to speak) the opportunity to create a much more pedestrian friendly facade on the north, which also happens to be a major street: overhangs, clear glass, and a building that hugs the sidewalk rather than pulling back. Let pedestrians see and understand what is going on inside!

An easy post-construction fix would be signage. There should be more graphic and text signage directing people to the correct entrances.

Some positive public aspects of the design are the wonderful fountain in the west plaza and the street planting/landscaping on the north side.


I am not a big fan of the new library either. Its like a costco or walmart and I miss the old library and its sense of place and time. As far as the north side of the building, I hope that some day in the future (hopefully not too distant) that we will have to add on to the building and this would be a good place to do so and give the building a more formal, fitting presense in the downtown area. Additionally, I hate that public buildings are being pulled away from the river. A big part of our city was planned to put a focus on the garden areas around the river and to have public spaces adorn its banks.

| Nov 6th, 2008 at 5:06 pm

That is an excellent insight regarding public spaces and the riverfront area. I will try to do some postings about the City's plans and responses to the river. My gut reaction is that there are some great things happening along the river, and that some of the historic bad decisions are being dealt with in a positive manner. It is indeed a shame to see the old library building occupying such a prominent spot and sitting empty.

DMPerspective | Dec 1st, 2008 at 2:05 am

Well, there's not much to do about the design of it. No one complained about it when it layout was unveiled during the planning. Did anyone attend the sessions and questioned it? If they didn't, that's their loss.

The new library was meant to be more than a library. The city and the citizens wanted the new library to stand out as a landmark of some sort.

I have a general question: is it more cost-effective to build something new rather than spend money renovating buildings? I compare the library topic to my hometown's public school stadium. My school district had to build a new stadium to replace the old stadium, which could have been renovated. The league we were joining would not admit us to their league unless we built a bigger modern stadium.

R.H. | Aug 5th, 2010 at 11:30 pm

I have a general question: is it more cost-effective to build something new rather than spend money renovating buildings?

This question requires an actual scenario in order to answer. Here are some of the issues that can factor into the decision-making process:

  • Condition of the structure
  • Existing and proposed uses
  • Advances in technology
  • Historic significance of the existing structure
  • Environmental hazards associated with the current structure (e.g. lead paint)
  • Available financing
  • Physical and social context
  • Energy use and potential savings
  • External influences

In your specific case with the stadium, the league requirement was an external influence that trumped all other considerations. Even if renovation would have otherwise been the preferable alternative, joining the new league was deemed more important.

In general, I tend to fall down on the side of renovation as the preferable option even when it is not necessarily least expensive in the short term. I think the long-term benefits of creating buildings that are repairable and built to last should be our goal.

DMPerspective | Aug 5th, 2010 at 11:52 pm

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