31 October 2012

Lewis & Clark Branch Library

architect: Frederick Dunn
art glass: Robert Harmon of Emil Frei Studio
location: 9909 Lewis and Clark Boulevard, Moline Acres, Missouri
date: 1963

The Lewis and Clark Branch Library is the architectural and artistic jewel of the St. Louis County Library system. The design of the building surpasses the other branches both functionally and aesthetically. It features an innovative structural system that provides a wide open floor plan with few fixed columns. The Lewis and Clark theme of the library is carried out in a thoughtful, representational way that appeals to children and on a more abstract level for adults.

Fred Dunn's Lewis & Clark Branch Library, 1963. (Photograph © 2012 Andrew Raimist).

Based on my recent visits, the library appears to be well used and much loved. When I was taking these photographs, many of the library patrons asked why I was there taking pictures. I explained that there was a chance the building could be torn down. Without exception, they expressed their dismay that this valuable community resource would be replaced.

People arrived by means of a range of transportation modes: automobile, bus, bicycle, on foot and by skateboard. There were a wide range in the ages of the patrons, from children who had clearly finished school earlier that afternoon to seniors using the computers to perform searches by computer.

The building is modest and unassuming from the street. It's a low slung rectangular solid with a brick base and glass top. The roof slopes gently toward the back of the site. The most distinctive element of the facade is the colored art glass that adorns some of its panes, primarily located at the eastern end of the facade. The colorful display features clearly legible identifying text in addition to prominently featuring standing images of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacagawea. If one heads eastward on Lewis and Clark Boulevard, you will be headed toward the riverside location from which their journey across the North American continent began in 1804.

Beyond it's didactic function, the position of the major art glass elements helps direct patrons toward the main entry located on the east building face. In fact, each of the three figures is subtly oriented toward the east. Both Lewis and Clark are gazing toward the east, while Sacagawea is actually offering directions to visitors pointing them in the same direction.

A series of rectangular "dashes" extends from the main facade around the corners to the east and the west connecting these sides visually and conceptually. These brightly colored windows occupy the only operable glazing on the facade: horizontal, rectangular windows. In a sense, the building invited patrons to engage with the glazing by offering these low tilt-in hopper windows.

The glass facade is remarkable in its simplicity and sensitivity. The aluminum framing is kept to a minimum dimension and the glass is held nearly flush with the brick partition wall below. We understand this exterior wall as a non-structural skin based upon the manner in which the clearly visible steel columns and beams are kept free of the glass and brick wall. Emphasizing this disjunction, the columns are located on the center of individual glass panes. There's no attempt to disguise the structural system. On the contrary, it is exhibited proudly in a no-nonsense manner that might even be characterized as solidly Midwestern, if not emblematic of Missouri's "Show Me" attitude.

The glazing creates a clerestory that wraps the entire building offering clear views from inside to out and vice versa. In this way, patrons are constantly reminded of the weather, sunlight and exterior conditions in a way not unlike the way that Lewis and Clark might have viewed the skies over the prairies for hints of oncoming storms.

Main facade facing Lewis & Clark Boulevard. (Photograph © 2012 Andrew Raimist).

The combination of art glass with large text allows the facade to serve multiple purposes. In one sense, it functions almost as a kind of artistic billboard advertising the building's basic purpose as well as visually marking the building with its namesake figures almost as if they were religious icons. There's a sense in which the facade acts as a kind of storyboard for children whereby they can be told the story of the remarkable adventures of the Corps of Discovery at the direction of President Thomas Jefferson who believed understanding the landscape in all of its richness–cultural, scientific and aesthetic–was essential to the future of our United States. It was in connection with his monumental Louisiana Purchase that the expedition was launched and it has become the source of iconic legends connected with the foundations of our nation.

Detail of rendering of Meriwether Lewis on the main facade. (Photograph © 2012 Andrew Raimist).

While the scholarly Lewis is shown with paper and quill taking notes and making drawings as a record of their travels. The large plants that surrounds his coon skin capped head reaches around and over him to point visitors toward the east in another reminder of the building's orientation to history and for the more routine purpose of entering the library. Lewis' figure is seated and clothed in robes suggesting both Michelangelo's Moses as well as the gaunt, bearded figures of El Greco.

William Clark with his long gun and game he's caught (view from library interior). (Photograph © 2012 Andrew Raimist).

Clark stands erect holding his long gun in one hand and displays a creature that he's captured in the other. His figure is ready for action and appears clad in animal skins not unlike those that Sacagawea wears. With his knees and legs exposed, he is clearly the more active figure of the two men. The beast he's bagged has been rendered with an artistic resemblance to Picasso's fragmented figures in Guernica suggesting the impending violence the white race would bring to the indigenous peoples of the area. Indeed he gazes at Sacagawea almost stoically with a sense of dynamism and violence that contrasts perfectly with her symmetrical, peaceful Madonna-like figure.

Sacagawea with child on her back with Clark and beginning of metaphorical "red path" (view from library interior). (Photograph © 2012 Andrew Raimist).

Of the three figures, she's the most heavenly and otherworldly. Surrounded by signs of peace and life (dove in flight) and immortality and renewal (peacocks perched on branches), Sacagawea carries her son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau on her back. Like a representation of the Madonna and Christ, the child appears to understand its role in communicating the peaceful intentions of these foreign explorers in the untamed lands of the American west.

Between Clark and Sacagawea, a red path appears which meanders across the facade suggesting their wanderings in the wilderness and the sometimes confusing doubling back that their journey experienced.

Detail of panel representing Sacagawea with her name, folds of her clothing and a plant (view from library interior). (Photograph © 2012 Andrew Raimist).

While the namesakes of the library are explicitly named in the building's name (along with the boulevard on which it is located), Sacagawea's name is rendered in a thin modernist font over an amorphous plant below her pointing hand. This detail helps reveal the special qualities of the enameled glass employed in creating this unique mid-century modern installation. The problem with using standard stained glass is that it tends to be primarily visible from only one side (either from the interior during the daytime or at night when the interior is lit). The enameled glass allowed the figures to read clearly from inside and out during a wide range of lighting conditions. The alignment of the figures on the interior and exterior faces of the glass vary in a way that creates a palpable sense of depth.

Representation of a bison under the "library" text above and the meandering red path below (facade view). (Photograph © 2012 Andrew Raimist).

The bison, an iconic figure of the American West, is rendered in the manner of an ancient cave painting. Its outline is precisely delineated, while some of the other marking are wonderfully child-like. Like the other major figures of the composition, the bison charges toward the east as if to say, "Get thee in to the library!"

Operable hopper window on the interior of the main facade with the artist's inscription reading, "Emil Frei Assoc. St. Louis". (Photograph © 2012 Andrew Raimist).

Fred Dunn developed a remarkable talent for creating understated, yet innovative architecture. The Lewis and Clark Branch Library is one of his best last works. He is perfectly happy to create a functional, beautiful work of architecture without feeling a need to declare his creative genius through his flair for original, startling form. He allows the building to be exactly what it needs to be. The reading room and book stacks are closest to the street and ensconced under the soaring ceiling above. The ceiling slopes gradually down toward the rear of the building where the librarian's offices and work spaces are located and a lower second story with community spaces can be found.

View of flexible, open plan interior with grid of steel beams overhead. (Photograph © 2012 Andrew Raimist).

Of course daylighting is a major driver of the architectural form in this structure. It informs the building's overall configuration and highlights its artistic decorative elements. There is a sense in which this building is a concatenation of two works of modernism: Phillip Johnson's Glass House and his solid brick house. Dunn uses brick where it performs an excellent backdrop for bookcases and desks. The glass begins from a consistent horizontal datum located above head height providing a continuous clerestory around the building's perimeter. It not only lights the interior, provides views of the sky and trees outside, but also highlights the building's structure and its isolation from the enclosure.

Section perspective view of library. Main facade (facing south) at right. [3D model created by Xiaoyang Gui, Washington University graduate architecture student as part of the history/theory seminar "Mid-Century Modernism in St. Louis"].

The SketchUp model with its roof removed reveals the ingenious way that Dunn has deployed the structural system. There are only two free-standing columns visible. The other pair of column are embedded in brick screen walls located to the south of the main entry and the loading dock. These two screen walls provide several advantages. They serve to define the reading room as a defined space separate from the rest of the programmatic requirements of the library. They also help to control gusts of air from entering that space. In addition, they help to create a smaller scale, more intimate space adjacent to the two other major decorative glass installations in the building.

View of building model with roof removed. Main entry at right. Loading dock at far side (directly opposite). [3D model created by Xiaoyang Gui, Washington University graduate architecture student as part of the history/theory seminar "Mid-Century Modernism in St. Louis"].

The line of yellow and red dashes that run around the building in the operable hopper windows lead to the two functional building entries: the main entry on the east and the loading dock for books and other library materials. The east-west orientation of this axis which is aligned directly adjacent the building's centerline knits together multiple meanings in the context of the building. Over the main entry is an abstract maze of red paths set into yellow and white zones. This formal emblem symbolizes the starting point of Lewis and Clark's journey across the unknown lands to the Pacific Ocean and invites library patrons to enter a world of intellectual adventure of the mind.

Decorative glass panel over the main entry. View partially obscured by subsequent interior soffit and exterior roof. (Photograph © 2012 Andrew Raimist).

Upon entering the library, patrons would look across the building and see the intricate panel of art glass located over the loading dock. At this moment, there would be a sense of recognition, if not epiphany, that they are traversing an intricate path of exploration just as Lewis and Clark did in 1804. How many buildings are able to incorporate purely functional spaces like a loading dock into an integrated artistic program that ties the architecture, historic theme and circulation patterns together into a meaningful whole?

Decorative glass panel positioned over the book loading dock. The main entry is aligned directly to the east. (Photograph © 2012 Andrew Raimist).

The bronze plaque inside the main entry on the brick partition wall located to your left is a beautiful and simple evocation of the period and the aesthetic intentions of the building and the organization: Provide a simple, clear, beautiful useful place for the public to access books. What could be a better definition for a library?

Bronze plaque inside the main entry with the architect and board of directors. (Photograph © 2012 Andrew Raimist).