It isn’t often that architects get involved with library planning and design at the theoretical level. We embrace systems-thinking, seek innovative solutions to the problems at hand, and are adept at translating big-picture concepts into real designs for real clients. But we are seldom invited to actively participate in the formulation of the essential mission of the academic library and how the architecture of the library can foster novel programs and events.
Working with Dr. George Fowler, the University Librarian at Old Dominion University, we've had the opportunity to co-create a spatial typology that expresses the essence of the library at public research universities. Dr. Fowler’s own research into the spirit of today’s library is at the core of the partnership. His investigation into the purpose of academic libraries has led to an exciting opportunity for VMDO to develop new spatial typologies that support what Dr. Fowler refers to as “Intersubjective Communication.” According to Dr. Fowler, this type of interaction needs to be provoked in today’s libraries, and we need spaces that do so with intentionality.
Our collaboration began with an open forum at VMDO’s office in Charlottesville, Virginia in January. George addressed an audience of architects and designers interested in libraries and intrigued by his assertion that the institutional library has lost some ground in academia. He urged those assembled to embrace the idea that libraries are charged with the task of “popping bubbles and removing filters” and challenging “presuppositions” that occur when library users default to their own convictions about topics and are not open to differing information. He argued that “the gap between information literacy and critical thinking” needs to be filled and that the library is a natural ally (and setting) for helping to close this divide.
Following Dr. Fowler’s opening remarks, VMDO launched a series of design charrettes to attempt to give form to Dr. Fowler’s vision of a space that is “actively neutral” – within which users could “challenge their own knowledge and way of knowing.” VMDO explored a series of spatial precedents (studios, galleries, black box theaters, pubs, etc.) that demonstrate openness to non-hierarchal dialogue and discussion. We then followed-up with more literal, architectural examples of learning and working spaces that espouse a dedication to “disinterested research” – i.e. pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake in support of academic freedom and open inquiry.
We are now in the process of developing designs for a discreet architectural insertion that can be deployed as a test-case for our collaboration. The hope is that a small prototype space will be funded and constructed to test our hypotheses about how people interact, how a space can provoke that interaction, and the importance of such a space at a public research university. We are affectionately referring to this effort as the “ISpace,” or “Intersubjective Space” project. We’ll post developments as they occur through the spring.