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You gotta like Witold Rybczynski. In Slate last week, not only did he praise Chicago's Harold Washington Library Center, he did so in the form of a slide show accompanied by actual reasoned text, not the jittery and isolated clauses of PowerPointspeak.
Rybczynski's making what I take to be a fairly conservative point, since he's riffing on a forthcoming book, The Architecture of the Absurd: How "Genius" Disfigured a Practical Art, written by cranky former Boston University president John Silber and praised by (shudder) George Will. But it's also a point often made by those of us who wish architects paid more attention to the people who have to live and work in their creations.
In the case of our library, Rybczynski calls it "decorated architecture" and a "Beaux-Arts box," adding that its architects Hammond, Beeby & Babka "simplified the form of the building, which allowed them to increase the quality of the materials. The interior walls, for example, are hand-laid plaster, rather than cheap wallboard; furniture is durable oak, rather than metal and plastic."
OK, but I've never been crazy about the building's internal circulation -- I mean, the long and convoluted path one has to take to get to the books. At the risk of being accused of piling provincialism on reaction, I'd have to say that the new Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana (which also occupies an entire city block in a downtown), does a better job of welcoming its many users. And, in the sense we're using here, it's not an icon either.