The Duluth Public Library: Modernist masterpiece

Every structure that I have built has been a first for me—I have refused to emulate any existing form or idea. Gunnar Birkerts

One thing that surprised me when I moved to Duluth, in 1998, was how much some people seemed to dislike the Duluth Public Library. They scoffed at its unusual ore-boat-like shape, saying that it didn’t fit in with the rest of the city. They were angry that it obstructed the view of the historic Union Depot, with its historic French-Norman style architecture. They complained that the broad outdoor plaza at the library’s eastern end, overhung by the library’s jutting third floor, was gloomy and unwelcoming. The tone of the complaints tended to be resentful, as if people were personally offended by the building.

As a newcomer, I was more concerned with the library’s function than its architecture. Could I check out books, order books through interlibrary loans, browse newspaper archives, examine clippings files, copy documents, and use the Internet when I needed to? Yes, I could. Were reference librarians available to help me? Yes, they were. Were there plenty of chairs around for me to sit in? Yes. And so I thought the library was just fine. The fact that it looked like an ore boat didn’t bother me. One reason I liked cities was for the different types of architecture that built up over the years, reflecting the styles and realities of different moments in history, and giving each city its own unique look. In Duluth, the library was part of that. My general feeling about its design, which I really didn’t think about much at all, was one of casual appreciation. I liked the clean lines.

Over the years, I continued to hear complaints about the library, often from people who were open-minded in other respects. It wasn’t only the vehemence of the complaints that puzzled me, but their substance. To say that the library didn’t fit in with Duluth seemed mistaken to me. True, the building style didn’t match the style of other buildings, but nautical- and waterfront-themed elements of other kinds were everywhere in town. Upon entering the western end of downtown on Superior Street, the first landmark you encountered was a pointed, upward-sweeping concrete sculpture in Gateway Plaza, representing a boat’s sail. The City of Duluth’s logo, displayed in many places, also featured a sail. The metal sculpture fastened to the Government Services Building represented sea birds in flight. A replica Viking ship sat in Leif Erikson Park. The William A. Irvin, an actual retired ore boat, livened up the waterfront. The city’s bike racks, including one at the library, took the form of waves and fish. And on and on. When one considered these elements, the library fit in very well. 

If anything, it was the historic Union Depot that was out of place. Looking around, I couldn’t see much else in town that reminded me of the French Renaissance. And the Radisson Hotel, across the street from the library, was a giant cylinder. How did that fit in with the rest of the city? And what about the sprawling jumble on the waterfront known as the DECC? The DECC was the architectural equivalent of a junk drawer—useful, perhaps, but a mess to look at. The DECC didn’t fit in with the city, or with anything, really. But only the library made people mad. Why?

The antipathy was on full display on the evening of July 21, 2014, when the Duluth city council prepared to vote on a resolution to hire the consulting firm of Meyer, Scherer and Rockcastle to do a facilities study of the library and make recommendations for its future. Before the consultant was even hired, and with no idea what their eventual recommendation might be, Councilor Jennifer Julsrud said, “I have always found the downtown library to be a cold, thoughtless place, a place that the architecture of the building was not well-thought-out. There were these beautiful historic buildings that surrounded the building, that they could have had these gorgeous views of. It’s near Lake Superior, it could have been tall enough to see the lake. There’s so much thought that did not occur in the building of this. […] And so I think there’s a lot of opportunity for us to rethink the library itself, and I’m not opposed to tearing it down and rebuilding something new.”

“It is an unwieldy building,” agreed Councilor Sharla Gardner. “I think, ideally, if the city had lots of money, that would be one of the things I would like to see.”

“If we had unlimited funds, I would love to tear it down and reclaim that end of town,” put in Councilor Joel Sipress, “—and build a building that actually works with the downtown.”

The only councilor who had anything nice to say about the library was Councilor Jay Fosle. “When it was constructed, to me and all my friends it was more of a shock-and-awe. I mean, we kind of liked it. It was a building like no other in the city of Duluth at that time. It looked cool.”

The council, of course, hired the consultants, and the consultants, after six months of study, recommended building a new library. One can only imagine the joy that leapt into councilors’ hearts upon hearing the news.


The architect

Had Gunnar Birkerts, the library’s architect, been present at the July council meeting, he would undoubtedly have objected to Councilor Julsrud’s comment about the building’s lack of thought. Writing in 1982, shortly after the library’s completion, Birkerts said, “The building form is directional [….] Both ends are not the same. It is like a ship anchored at the mall, indicating its direction where it will depart.”

The site constructions were such that the upper floors had to be cantilevered over some public property, which really was a requirement, which gave the building added reason for its sculptural form. The exterior enclosure is of porcelain steel panels and glass. The glass band is inclined to achieve some self shielding on the southern exposure. The band of silver panels under the windows was introduced to achieve more diffusion of light from the building through the inclined glass onto a reflecting panel on the interior. The slate gray building color seeks affinity with the fine historical building across the street, which was influential, even dictated, the position of the new library building. […] The interior details and color palette has restrained affinity with the nautical theme. Concept for the building has survived ten years of changes in program, attitudes, budget and management. But the basic concept has stayed.

Birkerts’s original idea for the Duluth library was to build it on railroad tracks and run it up and down the length of the city. “Now, that didn’t go over,” he said during a lecture at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in 1980, as his audience laughed, “and I didn’t expect that it would, but it had its byproduct. It still remained a dynamic kind of building [….] one that said, ‘I am going that way.’”

Birkerts’s work is categorized as Modernist architecture, and Birkerts is considered by many to be one of the great names in the genre.  Modernism, generally, is a philosophy that rejects excess ornamentation in favor of clean lines; that refuses to follow in the footsteps of any established architectural tradition; that experiments with new materials and techniques; and that believes buildings should relate to, and create a dialogue with, their surroundings. Some Modernist buildings, shown to my untrained eye by Google Images, are handsome; others seem ridiculous.

Birkerts, speaking at an architectural conference in 2012, said, “It is the particular [that matters]. I’m looking for the particular, because that is what makes the projects differ one from the other, and that is what [the client] likes. […] You can find the end ingredients, the feelings, either of the persons designing it, or whether it is the city, whether the townspeople, whether it’s the landscape, whether it’s the orientation…whatever is a factor is influencing [the final product]. So I call that the organic synthesis, and that is really the formula. That’s how I work.”

Born in Latvia and educated in Germany, Birkerts moved to the United States in 1949, where he worked under two great Modernist architects, Eero Saarinen and Minoru Yamasaki, before breaking away to start his own practice in 1959. In 1973, he completed what he considered to be his most important achievement: the Federal Reserve Bank Building in Minneapolis. Displaying a unique “catenary cable support structure” (the same type of engineering that holds up suspension bridges) the Federal Reserve Building was hailed as a tremendous architectural triumph and established Birkerts’s international reputation.

Architectural critic William Marlin wrote that the bank “bridges a vast plaza like a metaphorical confluence of Old Man River and the Great Plains stretching beyond. This reflective glass-encased span, its floors held by graceful cables between huge pylons at either end, is indeed dramatic—and that plaza runs right on under the building. [….] It has the sly wit of a comment on the very institutional authority he was being asked to symbolize.” This is how architectural critics write.

Despite its impressive engineering, however, the Federal Reserve Building experienced leaky windows, structural rusting and other problems. In a 1996 City Pages article, Birkerts lamented the lack of attention that had been paid to maintenance: “If you had a car for 30 years you wouldn’t expect not to fix it up a little, to do some maintenance.” A great deal of asbestos had also been used in construction, which created health concerns. 

In 2002, the Federal Reserve Building was purchased by private investors, who restored and remodeled it to exacting environmental standards, at a cost of $65 million. The famous open space under the building was walled off. Today the building is called Marquette Plaza and bills itself as “the most environmentally sustainable (and healthiest) workplace in the market,” offering “environmentally conscious and tech-forward companies an absolutely unique office solution.” The catenary structure still looks impressive.

During his career, Birkerts designed and built libraries, museums, office buildings, schools, churches, embassies, the occasional private residence, and even a fire station (an arresting triangular building in Corning, New York). He collected a raft of awards and honors along the way. In his spare time, he held down a job as a professor of architecture at the University of Michigan and penned a book on architectural theory, in which he explored his ideas on the organic synthesis of buildings.

Birkerts’s most recent building is the Latvian National Library in Riga, Latvia, which opened in January of 2014. In icy temperatures, 14,000 people assembled to pass books hand-to-hand from the old library to the new. The building is a massive pile of glass and steel that resembles a mountain. Birkerts wanted to call to mind the Crystal Mountain of Latvian folklore, atop which a princess slept while her suitors attempted in vain to scale the glass walls to reach her. Birkerts considered the tale to be an allegory of Latvia’s fight for freedom from Russia. In numerous interviews, he said the Latvian National Library would be the final work of his career.


As for Duluth…

On February 13, 2015, I called Gunnar Birkerts at his home in Massachusetts. My call was the first he had heard about anyone wanting to demolish the Duluth Public Library. “That is not good news,” he said, with a pronounced Latvian accent. “My building is getting torn down.”

At 90 years old, he spoke with the alertness of a man in full possession of his faculties. I explained that the consultant’s report had identified energy loss and lack of maintenance as big problems for the library. “Well, that is the problem with architecture,” he said. “Regardless of the period it was built, you have to maintain it—particularly Modern architecture, which was built with materials and techniques that were new.”

“The consultant’s report says that it’s experiencing a lot of heating loss through the cladding,” I said.

“That’s possible,” he agreed. “It depends what has happened to the insulation in the years. It may have collapsed or somehow been affected by time. That’s what I mean, that the technology was maybe not tested at that time. If you have metal panels, they have to be well-insulated—and they were, as we installed them, as we specified them—but we didn’t know what they would look like twenty years from now. And maybe it’s also that there is a large roof surface, so that has to be insulated again.”

“And just apart from the maintenance issue,” I said, “I’ve noticed that people in this town have strong opinions about that library, and I think that a lot of the drive to tear it down is from the side that has these negative opinions about it. To listen to people, how personally they take it, it almost sounds like they’re offended by, just, it, itself, in some way. ”

“I see,” said Birkerts. “Well, that could be. Of course, when it was proposed, there was also a committee that accepted it. The metaphor was understood that since Duluth is really on the lake there, that this was sort of a metaphor of the ore boat that you have anchored, running on the lake. It was a metaphorical presentation, and also it was a building that was expressive in terms of direction. Duluth is a stretched-out city, and the city extends way out. And so that curve on the front suggested dynamics, you know, that it really is kind of relating to the rest of the city.”

“My idea is that people just don’t like the individual,” I said. “They want everything to be communal or something.”

“Yes, I could see that,” said Mr. Birkerts. “I can see that there’s a set of mindsets that wouldn’t like it. That goes with all contemporary buildings that are not in any way rip-offs of something—that are created and built in a certain time. I fully recognize that there are people who will feel that way. If they gather strength, they will introduce a removal.

“Anyway,” he went on, “I would say that’s a little bit their loss, because my buildings have become a collector’s item around the country. That’s one of my favorites, too, the Duluth Library, because it has the metaphor and the symbolism and all these things that I like to work with, and so it’s sort of an expression of time and also my thinking at the time. So I’m sorry. […] If you live long, you see your buildings go, disappear before you do. It’s terrible!” He laughed.

“Has that happened a lot in your career?” I asked.

“No, but here and there. You know, the Federal Bank in Minneapolis, that was saved because it was converted to a different kind of use. One church is being torn down in Michigan because of a huge development that’s coming in. But that’s not for aesthetic reasons, just for real estate considerations.” 

“Duluth really does have a lot of people interested in historic preservation,” I said. “I just don’t think people are aware of the facts here, or the background.”

“You know, the modern architecture is already going into historic preservation,” he said. “All the buildings of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties…when you read the preservation magazines, you find buildings that are of my type of architecture.”

At that moment, my other phone started ringing and my four-year-old son started yelling, “Daddy? Daddy?” I had trouble hearing Birkerts.

“Sorry,” I said. “I have noises going off here.”

“Well, I’m glad to talk to you, and let me know how it works out,” said the architect. “Tell them that I’m not angry, that I’m not furious [laughs], that I talked to you, but I still have some reservations about their attitudes. But that’s something else.”

“I will,” I said.