Cambridge Public Library by William Rawn Associates

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Legible and Luminous: William Rawn’s pristine glass box for the Cambridge Public Library quadruples the size of the original historic building.

By Joann Gonchar, AIA

Cambridge Public Library

Anyone who doubts the relevance of libraries in the age of e-readers,, and the iPad should visit the new central branch of the Cambridge Public Library (CPL), in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They will find patrons borrowing the latest James Patterson thriller, parents reading to small children, people taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi, and community groups using the building’s meeting spaces.

The goals of the CPL project, which has had between 1,600 and 2,000 visitors each day since opening in October 2009, included creating a building that would be a “town common,” one that was open and inviting to the city’s diverse population, according to its lead architects, Boston-based William Rawn Associates. In addition, they hoped to avoid overwhelming the much smaller original library — a structure by Van Brunt & Howe built in 1888 and restored as part of the $69 million project by Ann Beha Architects, also of Boston. The new and old structures are connected, together creating a 104,000-square-foot facility, almost quadruple the size of the original. The work also included demolition of a small but unsympathetic brick-walled addition built in 1967 — one that CPL director of libraries Susan Flannery describes as a “goiter” on the side of the historic library.

To more appropriately respond to the granite-and-sandstone original, the architects created a three-story, steel-framed structure with a crystalline glass facade, 180 feet long and 42 feet tall. Rawn’s building serves as the library’s main entry, meeting at grade a surrounding grassy 4-acre city park revamped by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh in tandem with the library’s expansion. The new transparent building provides a foil for Van Brunt & Howe’s library — a solid, bearing-wall object with its first floor elevated several feet above the ground. “The best way to honor the old building was with one that was genuinely contemporary,” says Pamela Hawkes, FAIA, an Ann Beha Architects principal.

One of the major impediments to realizing the design team’s vision for a dematerialized structure was the glazed facade’s southwest exposure and the associated potential for heat gain and glare. This orientation was practically a given, according to the architects, because of the proximity of a public high school bordering the park and a city requirement that the front facades of the new and historic buildings align.

To preserve the concept of transparency and ensure the thermal and visual comfort of the occupants, the CPL project team devised a double-skin curtain wall of low-iron glass [Architectural Record, July 2009, page 102]. Its two layers, supported by a structure of vertically oriented Vierendeel trusses detailed to be as unobtrusive as possible, define a 3-foot-wide cavity that acts as an insulating jacket: Dampers at the wall’s top and base can be opened or closed, depending on the season, to vent or retain the warm air that collects within. The cavity also incorporates internal shading devices that shield the library interior from direct sunlight while allowing indirect light to penetrate more deeply.

Behind the pristine glazed wall, the atmosphere is more like an appealing book emporium than a public library. The first- and second-floor slabs cantilever 15 feet from structural columns to define a reading area at the building perimeter with unobstructed views of the park. Beyond, the collections are displayed in open shelves. And on the first floor, patrons are permitted to eat and drink (except at computer terminals) and chat. “We were going for a cross between a bookstore and a library,” explains Flannery.

Dividing the new building’s roughly rectangular floor plate nearly in half is a circulation zone, defined by a lipstick-red wall, ceiling, and terrazzo-clad grand staircase. The eye-popping color, visible from the park especially at night, contrasts with more subdued and natural materials such as schist and maple. Daylight further enlivens the space, entering not only from the double-skin facade, but from multiple directions, including from a skylight over the stair.

The mood is altogether different in the reading room of the historic building, which visitors reach by way of a bridgelike, glass-enclosed connector. Here they find a vaulted, oak-bookshelf-lined space, with newly restored WPA-era murals illustrating themes relevant to books and libraries, such as the history of papermaking and printing and the development of the Dewey Decimal System. The room’s other plaster surfaces, which had been white for decades, are now, after paint analysis, returned to their original earthy palette of terra-cotta, ocher, and olive. The result is the kind of pleasingly cocoonlike environment that one would expect from a late-19th-century reading room.

One of the more surprising spaces in the historic building is the teen lounge, occupying what had been the second and third levels of the library’s stacks. Architects have inserted an aluminum-grid ceiling, with mechanical systems visible above, and left the brick walls exposed, maintaining the almost industrial feel of this former back-of-house area. According to Flannery, the room is regularly full to capacity after school with students doing homework, surfing the Internet, and reading while sitting on restaurantlike banquettes or stretched out on beanbag chairs. “We worked hard to make sure that popular and lively programming was housed in the old building,” she says.

This room is an example of imaginative adaptive reuse, and it also typifies the approach that has made the CPL project a success: The architects have managed to provide spaces, within both the new and old structures, with a variety of distinct characters that appeal to a broad spectrum of users. At the same time, they’ve found a way to greatly expand a historically significant building without compromising its relevance

Cambridge Public Library

Especially at night, a circulation zone defined by vibrant color is visible from the 4-acre park surrounding the library.

Cambridge Public Library

The double-skin curtain wall is supported by 33 ladder trusses which contain no view-obstructing diagonals. Louvers enclosed within the facade cavity and external glass visors have been carefully coordinated to mitigate heat gain and glare and maintain sight lines to the exterior.

Cambridge Public Library

The design team worked closely with landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh to make the library’s ground floor and the surrounding park’s grassy lawn at the same elevation. The grille at the base of the curtain wall conceals a trench and an operable damper. This damper, along with another at the top of the wall, can be opened or closed to trap air or allow it to circulate through the double-skin cavity.

Cambridge Public Library

Daylight fills the new library’s ground floor, coming from multiple directions, not just from the primary double-skin facade. A grand stair, with skylight above, links the first two levels.

Cambridge Public Library

The oak-bookshelf-lined reading room includes a set of WPA-era murals restored as part of the renovation. The reading tables are new, but fabricated to match a few remaining historic tables. Unlike the originals, these accommodate wiring for power and data.

Cambridge Public Library

The teen room occupies what had been the original library’s stacks. The architects preserved the almost industrial feel of this former back-of-house space by leaving brick walls exposed and inserting an aluminum-grid ceiling.

Cambridge Public Library

The perforated-aluminum louvers enclosed in the curtain wall cavity are slightly curved to help bounce sunlight onto the library’s ceiling. The building management system controls their operation, moving them from horizontal to slightly tilted toward the exterior, depending on the season and time of day.

Cambridge Public Library

The southwest orientation of the new library was practically a given due to a requirement that its front facade align with that of the late-19th-century original.

Cambridge Public Library

Cambridge Public Library

Cambridge Public Library

Cambridge Public Library


William Rawn Associates, Architects, Inc.
10 Post Office Square, Suite 1010
Boston, MA 02109
T: 617.423.3470
F: 617.451.9205

ASSOCIATE ARCHITECT (Historic Building Architect)
Ann Beha Architects
33 Kingston Street
Boston, MA 02111
T 617.338.3000
F 617.482.9097

William Rawn, FAIA  LEED AP, Principal for Design
Clifford Gayley, AIA  LEED AP,  Principal for Design
Philip Gray, NCARB, Project Manager
Kevin Bergeron, AIA LEED AP, Associate – Project Architect
Ken Amano LEED AP, Senior Designer
Design Team: Matthew Stymiest, Sebastian Mendez, Aaron Malnarick, Ned Baxter, Jeff McBride, Paul Governor, Rob Wear (Registered Architect), Elijah Porter, Vaughn Miller, Qing Yang, Eric Gewirtz, David Croteau (AIA), Andrea Hsu, Lauren Coles, Matt Osborn, Peter Reiss, Vivian Uang, Ann Dacey, Rob Chan, Yu-Lin Chen, Timothy Wong, Shiu Chie Yokoyama, Michael Mandeville, James Saunders, Jean Perrin, Jose Diaz, Grace Rudolph, Jesse Belknap, Andy Rah, Thomas Brennan.

Pamela W. Hawkes FAIA, Principal-in-Charge
Ann Beha, FAIA, Consulting Principal
Wolfgang Rudorf AIA, Project Manager
Michele Auer AIA, Project Architect
Design Team: Richard Panciera, Scott Aquilina, Andrew Grote, Nick Brown, Nicole Groleau

Architect of record
William Rawn Associates, Architects, Inc. (LEAD ARCHITECT)

Associate architect(s)

Interior designer:
William Rawn Associates, Ann Beha Architects, with LAB [3.2], Bruce Danzer

Structural Engineer:
LeMessurier Consultants

MEP Engineer:
R.G. Vanderweil Engineers

Civil Engineer:
HW Moore

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Designers

Acentech Inc.

IT and A/V/:
CCR Pyramid

Facade Consultant:
Arup Facade Engineering, London

General contractor:
Consigli/ JFWhite – A Joint Venture

Robert Benson Photography
(860) 951-3004

Chuck Choi
(718) 638-5825

CAD system, project management, or other software used:


Structural system:
Cross Contracting

Ralphs’s Blacksmith Shop

Steel Construction:
Sturo Metal Inc.

Exterior cladding
Dedham Granite (historic building)
Sparta Pink Granite (New Building)

Metal/glass curtainwall:
(New Building) Double Skin Curtainwall and General Curtainwall: Gartner Steel and Glass

(Historic Building) Novum

EIFS, ACM, or other:

Built-up roofing:
American Hydrotech

Flat-seam zinc-coated copper roof / copper roof

Evergreen Slate shingles


Window Master (restored)

Wausau Window/ Modern Glass

Saint-Gobain; PPG Industries

Gammans Skylight Systems

Modern Glass (custom)

Metal doors:
De La Fontaine

Wood doors:
Marshfield Door Systems

Fire-control doors, security grilles:
Overhead Door

Schlage; CRL

Dorma; LCN

Exit devices:
Von Duprin

Interior finishes
Acoustical ceilings:
Simplex; Armstrong

Suspension grid:
Simplex; Armstrong

Cabinetwork and custom woodwork:

Paints and stains:
Benjamin Moore; Sherman Williams

MDC; Maharam; Forbo


Plastic laminate:

Special surfacing:
Epoxy Terrazzo Floors and Stair – Specialty
Flooring Systems

Floor and wall tile (cite where used):
Apavisa Tile (New Building Ground Floor, Garage Entry)
Vals quartzite pavers (New Building Ground Floor)
American Olean (Bathrooms)
Plyboo bamboo flooring, DuroDesign Bamboo flooring

Resilient flooring:
To Market

Interface; Shaw Contract

Office furniture:

Reception furniture
Fixed seating:
Irwin Seating

Dakota Jackson


Worden Library Shelving

Interior ambient lighting:
Louis Poulsen
Tech Lighting
Color Kinetics
Mark Lighting
Focal Point
Prudential Lighting


Louis Poulsen
B-K Lighting
Kim Lighting


Otis Elevator – Gen2





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