Cleo Rogers Memorial Library – I.M. Pei

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been on the competition team in the office for a really exciting project – which explains the lack of new blog posts. During the long hours my mind kept coming back to a certain image – an image of monumentality, materiality, of happy moments spent in a delightfully humanist Brutalist library in my hometown. This image (which I’m now painting):

Brick. Waffle Slab Concrete. Wood. Heart be still. This might not be one of I.M. Pei’s most well known buildings, but it is certainly my favorite of his work. I remember trips to the library – the kids zone in the basement, the beautifully brutalist stair connecting floors, wandering through the stacks when I got older. It feels serene, ordered, as if almost the entire building is that slightly dark, yet bright enough, reading nook to ingest knowledge. There are large size windows bringing light into the space but here in a way the darkness becomes the light – the allegory of the cave is reversed. Those who are in the cave are not the unlearned masses, but the books being checked out and brought into the world to enlighten the masses.

There is a beautiful rhythm to the facade of the building. It’s austere, but inviting. In many ways it is a study in contrast much like Saarinen’s Irwin Union Bank contrasted and called back to the turn of the century buildings making up Columbus’ downtown district. The grid of the waffle slab, in a way reminiscent of the Jeffersonian grid that orders the country, shows up on the exterior (a wonderful moment). The shadow play in the building has such great depth that it just draws you inside.

Wonderful moments happen on the inside. Not just new knowledge being formed or the passing off information, but the aforementioned stair, the lightwells bringing light into the basement Childrens’ level, Skylights bringing diffuse natural light and greenery into the building – further bringing the library down to human scale. Humanist. Brutalist. A warm feeling always surrounded me in this place, and it is no wonder where I got my love for both concrete and waffle slabs – especially when the trades are coordinated so well you don’t see conduit, ductwork, etc… marring the beautiful regularity.

There is a break between two pavilions. Exterior wall becomes interior in an addition by Jim Paris. Many cues from Pei’s building are used, but simplified to an essence. The same material palette is used minus the waffle slab, but it doesn’t detract from the experience. A light filled arcade keeps the two “caves” separate and recalls Roche and Dinkeloo’s Irwin Union Arcade a couple blocks to the West. The two buildings create a dialogue with each other, which I’ve always appreciated in additions or adaptive reuse of buildings.

Outside, the red brick used in the building becomes plaza, a popular hangout, and venue for public gatherings. I’ve seen a few concerts in the plaza in my day. It also is a grand urban gesture, connection the library with Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church across the street. It becomes the starting point for any tour of Columbus’ architecture. Plus it has a super cool Henry Moore sculpture serving as the perfect counterpoint to the library.

I have many fond memories of this building – as a kid, as a teen, and as an adult when researching Irwin Union Bank for my Master’s thesis. It is no wonder this library kept popping into my head as to me it represents what a library should be – A vessel of knowledge and a key to new worlds, and the creation of the right ambiance/environment for learning.

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Josh Mings

Architect and painter. Columbus, IN born, New Orleans educated, Chicago living and trying to leave the world better than I found it.