In architecture, as in drama, it is unwise to upstage the star. Additions to a building, if it has any historical or aesthetic significance, should defer to the original. At Smith College’s renovated Neilson Library, which opened on March 29, this rule is gleefully turned on its head. The original brick library of 1909 has been extended with a pair of limestone and glass pavilions, boldly abstract in form, that shift all the visual excitement to the periphery. But even as they extend the original building to the north and south, they also appear to clasp it like a pair of bookends, a first hint that there is a great deal more than abstraction at play here.
This layering is characteristic of its designer, Maya Lin, who has practiced in the interstitial space between art and architecture since her spectacular 1982 debut with her Vietnam Veterans Memorial. For the $120 million Smith College project she collaborated with Shepley Bulfinch, experts in library design. Their charge was to clear a century’s worth of alterations and additions that had left the library a patchwork of poorly lighted spaces. The rationalized plan permits a building that is smaller in square footage (reduced from 200,000 square feet to about 131,000) but, because of more humane ceiling heights, is actually larger in volume. “Let there be light” seems to have been the mandate, and in turn Ms. Lin has given Smith a building that is as bright as a greenhouse.
Behind its classical revival facades, virtually nothing of the original building survives, only the charmingly named “Standard Authors’ Room” (so it was originally called), the stately reading room to the right of the entrance. Otherwise, the interior has been scraped clear to make as open and sunny a space as possible, which has turned out to be uncannily prescient in view of today’s need for social distancing. The 16 rooms for teaching and student collaboration are typically glazed on one or two sides. There is even an “Ocular Sunscoop,” a reflective wall that curves along the central stair to direct daylight into the lowest level.
The most daring expression of this openness is with the entrances, which in a conventional library would be limited to a single control point, so as to prevent theft. But when plopped in the middle of the campus, where colleges like to put their libraries, such single-entrance buildings often form roadblocks, blocking all paths of circulation. The Neilson Library, however, is the rare library does not sit athwart the campus like the Rock of Gibraltar; deciding that permeability counts for more than theft prevention, it audaciously places public entrances on all four sides, opening it to passage in every direction.