Earlier this month, members of Shepley Bulfinch’s project team were in Richmond for the dedication of the new Cabell Library expansion at Virginia Commonwealth University.
As an intervention in a complex urban context, Cabell Library truly accomplishes the design goals we had intended for it: the way the building massing comfortably nestles into its context, how it responds to change of scale in the urban fabric, the way that building edges and interior space truly engage and activate public campus space, with human activity and interior destinations made legible from outside, how the play of volume and material, as both point and counterpoint, complements and reinterprets the existing ’70s library, and how the building creates a dialogue with the Cathedral and the Park, such that a new urban ensemble is created, at the crossroads of the campus and the city. All these intentions we had discussed in our workshops with the client, which they trustingly endorsed as drivers of design.
But none of us, particularly the client, could have imagined now that the building is completed and occupied, how impactful it would be, not only in the way that it re-imagines how students and faculty use libraries, but also as a transformer of urban space.
As a work of architecture, particularly successful is the way the new building reinterprets the existing Cabell Library built in the ’70s, where the verticality of the precast concrete fin panels is echoed and reinterpreted by glass fins and fenestration patterning using vertical fritted banding, so that the existing and the new are united through counterpoint. The material palette of limestone, tinted green glass (low-e), and standing seam zinc cladding creates obvious visual linkages to the Cathedral across the park. The generous loggia at street level beckons passers-by into the building while the reading rooms, perched above like a belvedere commanding panoramic views of the park and the campus, spark curiosity.
As an interior environment, you are struck by the rich variety of spaces for different kinds of activity, ranging from reflective spaces to highly collaborative spaces, fully embraced by the students. Particularly successful are the outdoor roof terrace and the four-season reading room with its operable windows, ceiling fans, and porch furniture, which have become favorite spots for quiet reading.
It was gratifying to read Edwin Slipek’s architectural review, which was published on the morning of the dedication, and which picks up on and embraces these design moves.
- Jay Verspyck, AIA, LEED AP
Jay Verspyck is an associate at Shepley Bulfinch and the project designer for Cabell Library.