SOM creates a rounded library wrapped in aluminium fins for Chicago’s Chinatown


Architecture firm SOM incorporated principles from Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese design philosophy, while conceiving the new Chinatown Branch Library in Chicago (+ slideshow).

Encompassing 16,000 square feet (1,490 square metres), the new library is located in Chicago's Near South Side, on an urban site near a busy intersection and elevated metro station.

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

"The building sits at the key intersection of South Archer Avenue and South Wentworth Avenue – the nexus of Chicago's historic southern and emerging northern Chinatown neighbourhoods," the firm said.

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

The two-storey building's rounded triangular form was inspired by the layout of neighbouring roads and Feng Shui, an ancient Chinese philosophical system that is focused on spatial arrangements and the flow of energy.

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

"The soft curves of the pebble-shaped, three-sided structure respond to ancient Feng Shui principles by matching the avenues' existing alignment without creating sharp, aggressive corners," the firm said.

"This form allows a fluid movement of pedestrians, abundant landscaping throughout the site, and opens up view corridors so that the building can be seen on all sides," added the architects.

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

The building has a double-layer glass curtain-wall that is wrapped with 118 vertical fins of varying heights.

The louvres – made of anodised aluminium with a light bronze finish – reduce heat gain and glare while maintaining views of the neighbourhood for visitors inside the library.

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

The roof, which is visible from a nearby metro station, is covered with native grasses.

Inside, the programme areas are oriented around a central, double-height atrium.

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

"Like a traditional Chinese courtyard plan, all spaces connect to the central atrium room, providing clear orientation and spatial cohesion," the firm said.

"Throughout the library, a spatially interconnected sequence allows for a sense of discovery and exploration."

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

The interior layout is also intended to provide a high level of flexibility. An open plan, with very few enclosed spaces, enables multiple uses and various configurations of furnishings.

"Highly efficient, it is designed for both present and future flexibility," said the firm. "The design team worked closely with Chicago Public Library officials to identify opportunities for programmatic overlap, thereby increasing the long-term utility."

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

The ground level contains a children's zone, exhibition space, central circulation hall and a community meeting area.

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

The community room is equipped for lectures, tutoring, reading and special events. Acoustic buffering curtains allow the space to be partitioned into smaller rooms, and a pantry enables the library to offer tea service.

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

A grand staircase leads to the second level, which houses reading rooms for teenagers and adults.

"Eye-height bookshelves in these areas create a sense of openness while still allowing for the creation of informal collaborative areas and intimate reading spots," the firm said.

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

The teen area, called the YOUmedia zone, is defined by a brightly coloured acoustic curtain. The space features a multimedia storytelling area and gaming tables.

A prominent feature on the second storey is a mural by local artist CJ Hungerman, which was created as part of Chicago's public art program. Titled Universal Transverse Immigration Proclamation, the mural measures eight feet high by 60 feet wide (2.4 by 18 metres).

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

Sustainability played a key role in the building's design, and the project is on track to achieve LEED Gold certification – one of the highest awards for energy-efficient buildings in the US.

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

Eco-friendly features include low-energy LEDs placed throughout the facility, ample natural light, a radiant cooling and heating system, and permeable paving that reduces stormwater runoff.

The facility replaces a former library that was one of the most visited in the city's public library system.

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

"The Chinatown Branch recognises the critical role that the library plays in uniting the Chinatown community," said Brian Lee, a design partner at SOM.

"It creates a key community anchor and an enduring cultural asset that will serve community members of all ages and accommodate diverse activities."

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

When it comes to ambitious new architecture, Chicago has fallen behind American cities like New York and Los Angeles in the past few decades. But some believe the city is seeing a "new burst of energy." Proposed projects in the Windy City include a super-tall skyscraper by Jeanne Gang and a pair of residential towers by Rafael Viñoly.

Chicago Chinatown Library by SOM

Chicago also recently hosted the first US architecture biennial, which opened in October and closes 3 January 2016.

Photography is by Jon Miller at Hedrich Blessing.

  • Taylor

    Dezeen, this building is not a circle.

    • Mark

      Don’t be so anal. (An anus is not a true circle either by the way.)

    • Jenna McKnight

      Thanks for pointing this out, Taylor. We checked with the firm, and the building has a rounded triangular form. We have modified the story to reflect this. Jenna, senior US editor for Dezeen.

  • evilp

    Has Chicago really fallen behind NY or LA in recent years? Have you seen the absurdity of what is being called “great architecture” in those two cities lately? I’m rather inclined to give Chicago a accolades for not falling for the tragically hip, pseudoacademic, parametric messiness befouling NY and LA and sticking to a rational, logical and pleasant approach to buildings.

  • Michael James Lucas

    The facade reminds me of Paul de Ruiter’s Bijlmer Park Theater in Amsterdam.