A look at John Johansen's design for an Orlando library.
On a hot and rainy Sunday in August 1966, the City of Orlando officially dedicated its new central library branch in front of a crowd of nearly 500 people. Like the unpleasant weather that afternoon, the first reviews of the hulking brute were mostly unfavorable- with many local residents so perplexed by the rough, unfinished look of the library that they would repeatedly ask librarians when the building would be completed (spoiler alert: it was). Over time though, the John Johansen-designed paean to concrete would garner a more enthusiastic response- its silvery walls softened by the frothy green fronds of the Florida palms.
Designed by Harvard Five architect John Johansen, the central branch of the Orlando Public Library is a monolithic concrete composition, a provocation of form and texture. Reflecting the trends of the period, the brutalist mass looked not to tradition but to the sculptural potential of its material (in stark contrast to the original limestone library that it replaced) and the flexibility of its programmatic requirements. Exploiting the power and drama of raw concrete, Johansen's design emerged as a modern showpiece capable of putting a booming Sun Belt city on the architectural map.
The fortress-like library is an assembly of disparate components, its corded surface, thick overhanging cornice, and vertical service towers unifying the diverse facade. In the June 1967 issue of Architectural Record, Johansen described his design as "an accretion of forms, as colonies of shelled animals assemble or grow together," and like much of the architect's work, it is a building that changes as one moves through it- appearing light and heavy, loud and quiet, man-made and natural all at the same time (a true testament to Johansen's skill with the material). Embracing the fluidity of active experience, the building's ever-changing face echoes the processes of growth and adaptation.
For all of the brute strength of the exterior, the inside of the library offers a surprising degree of warmth and lightness. Monumental mass is replaced by more human-scaled spaces that invite users to participate in the architecture around them. Like the outside of the building, the floor plan is carefully layered- this time around an impressive concrete staircase that spirals through the building's core. Natural light shines from large recessed windows, illuminating rows of books and reading areas. With the library-goer in mind, Johansen created a layout that is accessible and easy to decipher with each floor exhibiting an honest functionality and a devotion to public purpose.
From the very beginning of the project, Johansen designed the new library to function as a living organism, a structure that could grow and adapt over time (something that happened to be one of the architect's strong suits, in my opinion). In the late 1970s, local architect Duane Stark (of Schweizer Associates) was charged with expanding the building and designed an addition compatible with Johansen's initial vision. Today, the nearly 300,000-square-foot library fills an entire city block in the heart of Orlando's bustling downtown.
Like most of Johansen's work, the Orlando Public Library is a building defined by the endless potential of individual action. His designs embrace the power of motion- the carefully layered compositions, creative application of mundane materials, and radical fragmentation impossible to truly appreciate from a set of photographs. Honestly, I found Johansen's library even more dynamic than I had anticipated (and Johansen is my favorite of the Harvard Five)- it buzzed with kinetic energy and reveled in the possibility of chance. More importantly though, the design functions like a library, meeting the demands of the city's growing population. I expect it is a building that can't be experienced the same way twice. And in light of the loss of a number of important buildings designed by Johansen (see the Mummers Theatre), it is a relief to see this library so well maintained and retaining its original public purpose.
If you're in Orlando, it is definitely worth a look. You can find more John Johansen on claass HAUS here and here.
All photographs by author, April 2019.
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