Q&A with Michael Wiencek
By Beth Herman
Opening in June, the 22,500 s.f. Francis A. Gregory Library, 2100 36th Place SE, was the result of a collaborative effort between London- and New York-based Adjaye Associates, charged with the design, and architect of record Wiencek & Associates. DCMud talked with Principal Michael Wiencek about influences and site challenges the LEED Silver building posed.
DCMud: You are known to specialize in what some have called transformative multifamily housing. How did this inform your work on the Francis A. Gregory Library?
We knew that Ginnie Cooper, chief librarian for D.C., was interested in making libraries iconic, even though they may be neighborhood or branch libraries. She has the same passion about changing people’s lives through her libraries as we have about changing them through our multifamily housing. Ginnie wants people, and kids in particular, to start to view the library as an asset. Just like our housing—when we’re designing something in a disadvantaged neighborhood, we’re always trying to do something that raises the level of design quality people are used to. It gives them a boost of self-esteem. In the library’s case, it draws you to it so you’re utilizing something you may not have.
DCMud: So children factor into the space in a very special way.
Wiencek: The formative years really make a big difference in your life, so you’re experiencing good architecture and by virtue of that you’re pulled into this building.
Wiencek: In both this library and the William O. Lockridge/ Bellevue Neighborhood Library’s case, we replaced two 1950s brick boxes with no character, ambience or design whatsoever. David Adjaye’s inspiration for this building was a fabric jewel box, which appears to be how he does a lot of his designs. He works from an object.
DCMud: Simplistically, the building has been compared to a large, beveled mirror. What can you tell us about the process?
Wiencek: The curtain wall (glazing) systems that we used on the two libraries did not exist before they were built. We worked with the manufacturer to design two new systems. In a normal building, the curtain wall is an aluminum frame that hangs off the building and carries the glass. In this case it is laminated wood—of course renewable— that carries the glass. Also, there are varying diamond shapes. They may look very uniform when you first see them, but each one is different: The angle of the curtain wall is changing at each facet. There are only one or two pieces of glass that are actually the same size in that building. Adjaye also didn’t want to have columns sitting out there as support systems. So we made the curtain wall become the structure at the perimeter. And the grillage canopy which floats above the roof has a similar faceting design to it.
DCMud: Describe the site and any site challenges.
Wiencek: The library abuts National Park Service land at the rear with lots of trees. It’s the jewel box sitting on the street, playing against nature. In fact if you go at the right time of day, the building almost disappears because the glass has some reflectivity to it and reflects the trees from across the street and in front and in back. What everybody sees as this very structured, rigid frame design sort of disappears.
Parking was a challenge, as it went on the old site and there was none. But it is near main transit lines, and these libraries are meant to be within walking distance of the surrounding community.
To make our building work we had to keep a wall from the original library there, or we’d have had to encroach on the Park Service land. We wanted to use a small portion of their land as access, but that was not allowed as it is a national park. If you stand in the library and look back into the park land, it slopes down and away. If we could have cleared some of the undergrowth and made a lawn below the trees, it could have been an even more amazing space. Looking down at that park would have made it an experience like being at an art gallery—the trees like sculpture sitting out on the landscape.
DCMud: What about your own landscape? How did you come to your specialty in the area of affordable housing?
My father was director of personnel at NIH, and he’d always talked about social justice. He was all about creating jobs for all kinds of people back in the ‘60s when it wasn’t yet part of the culture. Between the two of them, it gave me the desire to make a difference and respect people through architecture. I hope to get the chance to renovate some of Hilyard Robinson’s buildings.