Author: Tyler Fitzgerald
Event: SUL North Site Visit
Date of event: 5.14.2013
Time of event: 1:15 PM – 3:00 PM
Place: Former GSB and future SUL North construction site
Date of record: 5.15.2013
At some point in our tour of the emerging Stanford Libraries North, amid the clang of hard work, our guide made a remark along these lines. When doing a renovation you work with things that can’t be changed, walls that can’t be moved.
- Inheriting Old Structures
There are in fact literal walls inside of the shell of the old GSB building that cannot be moved without costing millions of dollars, which is yet another type of wall. Certainly there are many restrictions on Stanford Libraries’ new acquired building: large concrete columns that are hauntingly reminiscent of Meyer, solid walls which block all passage of light, an amphitheater with a flexible floor, a slew of building codes, safety concerns, and little surprises (like unexpected pipes) left off the building plans.
These concerns are not just aesthetic but some are tied to critical design choices like furniture placement and location of electrical outlets that can potentially create a welcoming and useful study place. How does SUL deal with this rigid inflexibility of prior structures?
- Forming New Meaning
To combat the baggage brought on by inheritance I believe that the Stanford Libraries have taken a page from the School of Design.
The resilience and tenacity of our guide, Beth, seemed to rise over even the loudest machinery. She spoke carefully and fluidly, often punctuating a sentence or two with “I think”. She did not make normative assessments about her choice to have open study spaces with few closed off offices. She often just merely highlighted features.
Beth believes that living in an inherited space means learning to be flexible. She showed clear and earnest interest in tracking the results of her changes and recounted how she dealt fluidly with a company’s choice to add a storage place, reducing the size of one the planned study rooms by a third.
She remembered the phone booth people often used to take phone calls in Meyer (cell phone calls of course). She decided some of the extra space would be for storage and the rest of it would be for a small room to take phone calls and was also ADA compliant.
Though not the ideal solution, or the planned one, it is clear that the design adjusts to the needs of both students and building codes. While some might claim that this might be impossible (a huge research and communication burden), I would ask if they could name any other process that would guarantee student and university stakeholders in a building.
- A Focus on the Natural (At the Risk of Tearing Down a Few Walls)
The design of the new Stanford Libraries North does not only hinge on the ability to flexibly inherit the space but also a genuine drive to create a naturalistic and not closed off space. Beth wants to create a safe study space which has a design influenced by contemporary research on the influence of natural light. It was clear that even the walls surrounding the GSB would have to come down in some places for this natural light.
With these two distinct goals, a desire to be fluid and a strong pedagogical belief (that is: natural environments encourage studying and comfort) the design of SUL North is a work that attempts to marry change and tradition. It seeks to find how to use old material to make new and compelling structures. This is only accomplished through clear communication and transparency between those who are building something and those who are designing it. I think that I saw this type of synthesis much more at the SUL North site than any of the other buildings.