HAROLD WASHINGTON LIBRARY: THE STORY OF A CITY
6 February 2018
Famous for our storied tradition of architectural excellence, Chicago’s Cultural Mile epitomizes the city’s wealth of landmark buildings. Within this rich context, the confluence of architecture and history is perhaps best embodied by the Harold Washington Public Library. Constructed in 1991 and named for the mayor who spent his term fighting for its construction, the Harold Washington Library towers above the intersection of State and Van Buren streets, itself a testament to the world’s faith in the city of Chicago.
CHICAGO: A CITY IN NEED
Prior to the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago lacked public literary resources, since all libraries in the city were private institutions. Following the great blaze, A.H. Burgess of London penned an opinion piece in the London Daily News, calling for his fellow Londoners to donate books to the ailing city of Chicago. Inspired by his calling, prominent English citizens including Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold all donated portions of their private libraries to the recovering city.[ii] Over time, the original 8,000 volumes donated grew to well over 5 million distinct volumes. This impressive collection makes the Chicago Public Library system the ninth largest public library in the nation. [iii]
MEMORIAL TO CHICAGO’S ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY
Just as its history tells a story of Chicago, so too does the architecture of the Harold Washington Library. Designed by the architectural firm of Hammond, Beeby and Babka, the Harold Washington Library is an excellent example of architectural postmodernism; an architectural style known for referencing other architectural epochs to craft a unique, yet historically informed, building. In his 1966 polemic against architectural modernism, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Robert Venturi speaks “…of a complex and contradictory architecture based on the richness and ambiguity of modern experience, including that experience which is inherent in art,”[iv] thereby founding the premises on which architectural postmodernity took shape.
Postmodern architects like Hammond, Beeby and Babka encapsulated the ‘richness and ambiguity of modern experience’ in buildings such as the Harold Washington Library by referencing the city and its famed buildings in their blueprints. In so doing, they created a distinctly unique architectural moment that, much like the books that call this building home, tells a rich and compelling story of the city itself.
In the case of the Harold Washington Library, the architects took architectural cues from five of the well-known buildings that make up the Chicago architectural DNA: the Auditorium Building, the Monadnock Building, the Marquette Building, the Chicago Board of Trade Building, and the Art Institute of Chicago. The result is a gracefully monumental brick building with high vaulted windows and a distinct green ornamental roof that has itself become an architectural landmark of the city.
Just a short walk from 1000M, Harold Washington Library is both a superb library with all of the corresponding amenities, as well as a destination unto itself. Residents of 1000M are sure to enjoy the library’s beautifully open lobby where they may enjoy a refreshing cortadito from the nearby Cafecito while reflecting on Chicago’s rich and cherished history.
[i] “Chicago Facts”, Chicago Public Library website
[ii] “Library History, 1870-1899.” Chicago Public Library
[iii] “The Nation’s Largest Libraries: A Listing By Volumes Held” (July 2012), American Library Association.
[iv] Cited in review of Robert Venturi’s “Complexities and Contradiction in Architecture” by Martino Stierli, in Architectural Review, 22 December 2016