British architect Sir David Adjaye is tapped to design the new Winter Park library and events center

Architecture of happiness

British architect Sir David Adjaye is tapped to design the new  Winter Park library and events center

Last Tuesday night, British architect David Adjaye – Sir David Adjaye, since receiving a knighthood in December 2016 – addressed a crowd of Winter Parkers anxious to hear what is going to become of their beloved library.

"Architecture has soft power," he said. Quiet and somewhat self-effacing, Adjaye showed a few slides of other libraries he's designed, as well as the National Museum of African American History and Culture that he recently completed in Washington, D.C. Adjaye likes libraries because they are not just repositories of knowledge, but "part of the contemporary condition and our future trajectories."

Bookstores are getting scarcer and scarcer, and as for libraries, Sir David – winner of the Panerai London Design Medal, the British analog of the Pritzker Prize – is designing more and more of them. But they are not just shelves groaning with old novels and reference tomes. Adjaye's libraries include community rooms for reading clubs, maker spaces, learning laboratories: His modern structures expand the original notion of the public library as a free and open source of knowledge.

The Winter Park Public Library is an independent nonprofit organization, not part of the Orange County Library System. It currently occupies a three-story, 1970s prismatic brick box near the Alfond Inn, nestled among historic homes and facing busy Fairbanks. In 2014, under a new director, a series of public meetings were convened around the question of whether to stay and renovate or move and build new. In March 2016, Winter Park voters approved a ballot question on the new facility, voting yes by a narrow but definitive margin.

For most cities, this would have been the end of the process, but in Winter Park, the vocal minority refused to give up. A querulous "stay and renovate" faction continued its campaign post-election, filing lawsuits and generally muddying the waters. In December, a judge ruled that construction bonds could be issued. The "Save Our Library WP" group is still grumbling, but their options to appeal have been exhausted.

Around the same time, the venerable Aspen Institute, a think tank specializing in communities, chose the WPPL as a location for one of its five Dialogues on Public Libraries "because of the community’s willingness to deeply explore and commit resources to a 21st century library facility and the next generation of programs and services," says Mary Gail Dufresne Coffee, the library's director of community relations. The timing was coincidental, but fortuitous. The Institute eventually issued a report called "Winter Park Rising to the Challenge: A Report of the Winter Park Library Dialogue."

These public meetings happened to hash out the role of the library – now, and in the future. For those who actively use the Orange County library system, especially the downtown flagship, this question is easy to answer. For Winter Park, an out-of-town expert had to be brought in to confirm what the majority of citizens voted for. Time for some soft power ...

Winter Park's squabble over the future of its library was fixed, sort of, by adding a new problem – how to incorporate the aging Murrah Civic Center into a newer, bigger building. It sits on a somewhat inauspicious site on Morse Boulevard, just off 17-92. Squeezed between a lake and a parking lot, it faces an office building with all the charm of a Chevy radiator grill, not quite walkable from the town's traditional center. Architecture must indeed come to the rescue here, if the new library-cum-civic center is to succeed.

Few celebrity architects travel through Central Florida these days; the era when Disney hired giants like Robert Stern, Michael Graves and Arata Isozaki has passed, making Adjaye a welcome presence. After his brief talk, citizens gathered at flipcharts and wrote lists about what they wanted from the new space. Adjaye is a master of the public process, preferring to let the citizens lead, and in past projects, he has listened carefully to them. The results are stunning and inspiring additions to the urban form where he's designed buildings.

Adjaye will need all his persuasive powers to prevail over a city where street performers are too much spontaneity, contemporary design is suspect, and choosing the color of a sign can take hours of debate at City Hall. One of the recurring themes during Tuesday's flipchart session was whether the building had to be modern. Adjaye assured that the new center "will incorporate the town's history."

Let's hope the public – both those who support the new building and those who think it oughtn't exist at all – doesn't overly constrain the architect, so he can give us his best. Once it's built, we'll have to live with it for a very long time.

[Editor's note: The section of this story dealing with the Aspen Institute has been updated. The timing of the Institute's public meetings was not connected to disagreements over the decision whether to renovate or build new. We regret the error.]

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