Field Trip :: BPL North End Branch

Interior of the Boston Public Library North End Branch - Photo by Ian Hester

 By Ian Hester, BArch Candidate

The tight, narrow streets and dense urban fabric of Boston’s North End have significantly influenced the development of the area. In addition to these spatial constraints, much of the neighborhood is composed of closely knit four story brick buildings that were constructed in the nineteenth century, the result of which is an expectation for the scale and materiality of new architecture.

Entrance to the library

In 1965, the North End branch of the Boston Public Library was relocated to Parmenter Street, on a site that was unable to ignore the contextual issues of space, scale, and material. Architect Carl Koch, best known for his work with prefabrication techniques such as the Techcrete system, addressed each of the constraints in a modernism style design that was heavily influenced by his time at Harvard, where he studied under the Bauhaus innovator Walter Gropius, and a period of time working in Sweden and studying the Scandinavian architectural style.

Detailed brickwork is repeated around the facades

Koch’s resolution for the cramped site was to design the library around a Roman villa system, with the books and tables around the perimeter, surrounding the circulation and gathering area in a double height central courtyard space. The use of large ribbon windows around all four sides of the upper story of the courtyard not only lets in a great deal of natural light throughout the day, but also provides views of the surrounding buildings, thus creating long, wide panoramic views that could not be obtained with windows on a ground floor façade. This technique provides the illusion of being in a spacious, pleasant space when one is actually in a dense urban environment.

Views through the second story of the courtyard create a spacious atmosphere

Koch repeats the ribbon window approach on the ground floor, again encircling the building. In this case however, he raises the windows to the top of the wall and vertically shortens them. This common modernism design feature is especially effective in this case; from a seated position at the tables, which is several feet below the windows, the visitor looks at an upward angle through the ribbon windows, thereby allowing longer, wider views that extend beyond the adjacent buildings to include the sky, providing library patrons with the feeling that the library is located in a more open space than the densely packed North End.

View through the ground floor ribbon windows

The scale of the building is also addressed through the use of the Roman villa style. Parmenter Street and the surrounding buildings are quite tight, so a monumental public building would feel invasive and disrupt the cohesive nature of the neighborhood. Koch’s use of nearly the entire site, as well as his respect for the existing street wall, both help the library fit appropriately into the densely packed urban environment. In addition, his implementation of vertical design elements for the entry help break up the facade into segments that more closely reflect the architecture of the surrounding area, rather than a long uninterrupted facade.

The facades are broken up with brickwork

To ease the placement of this new building into a traditional neighborhood, Koch used brick, which is prevalent throughout the North End, as the primary material for the building. Even when it is used in decorative fashions that are not found nearby, the look and feel of it fits in with the context and creates a comfortable relationship between the library and the previously existing structures. The material decision, as well as those made regarding space and scale, contributed to a modern design that was able to exist cohesively in the urban environment, thereby leading to acceptance by the community.

Brickwork and mosaic details reflect the Modernism and Arts and Crafts styles

The Boston Public Library North End Branch is located at 25 Parmenter Street, near the intersection of Hanover and Prince. For hours and more information, click here. The next time you are in the North End, or if you are looking for something to do over the winter break, grab your sketchbook and take a little time to check it out the interesting ways in which the difficult constraints were addressed to create a successful building.