Of the dozen or so current and future building projects presented as part of the Central Campus Planning Update, the far most intriguing is the highly anticipated North Quad, which was dubbed the future centerpiece of the Central Campus Plan. Although still in the schematic design phase where any outcome is possible, the University is already boasting about North Quad – which is scheduled to open in 2009 and will replace the existing Frieze Building.
It will serve as a gateway to Central Campus from the north and will consider the shopping areas on State Street, the residential areas to the north and the green landscape to the east. Along with the 202 Thayer Street building, North Quad will strengthen the vitality of the northwest portion of campus both in terms of program and architectural elegance.
In all, a complete makeover of the Washington and State intersection will then be complete. What was once an archipelago of random buildings and an ancient high school will soon be a cluster of sleek University buildings and a high-rise apartment. But how would you feel if you went on “Extreme Makeover” and they fixed your teeth, straightened your nose and gave you the perfect body in every respect – except your left ear? It’s not that your left ear is extremely important to you, but it provides balance to your face and they just left it. The newly conceived North Quad is undergoing that very same treatment by keeping the Carnegie Library standing.
Down goes the beat-up Ann Arbor high school building posing as a distinguished university edifice, and here comes a “state-of-the-art” academic facility combined with much needed housing. By infusing cutting edge information technology and communal student spaces, the University and Einhorn, Yaffee, Prescott Architects of Albany, N.Y. are hoping for dynamic enclosures that feature exciting activities with diverse participants. This is no renovation or makeover; it is a complete demolition and reconstruction to create the ultimate academic space mixed with a brand new North Quad, the missing and final link to the University’s four-quad combo. Everything is exciting and fresh – except the adjacent, dingy Carnegie Library.
Already, the Carnegie Library looks old and dejected against the backdrop of the dilapidated Frieze Building, yet the University plans to preserve this historic relic by incorporating it into the new complex and renovating the interior.
Architects love to contrast or adapt their designs to surrounding buildings as justifications for their proposed ideas, but this technique also limits the possibilities of design. Any element that suggests homage to the aged library through mimicry is an unnecessary, stylistic element that could be avoided if the library was demolished along with Frieze. Even if the new architecture ignores all presence of the library, the physical relationship of the two buildings would create a comparison. Imagine the modest stone Carnegie engulfed by the proposed eight-story North Quad. No concrete design shows the new building yet, but the proposed mass and floor plans show tall residential wings along the north and south. How the Carnegie fits in to these plans is already beyond me. In either case, the architectural design’s fresh impact will be diminished because of this dinky, stone remnant.
The artistic style of North Quad is not the only thing limited by the Carnegie Library, there are also pragmatic considerations. Facing north, the existing Carnegie looks onto Huron Street and away from the pedestrian traffic of central campus. Currently used primarily as a back entrance to the Frieze, the Carnegie’s faAade is rarely seen except for the graduate students living on North Thayer. Nevermind having a makeover and forgetting about a left ear, at least an ear can hear. Why would anyone preserve all or even part of a building’s back entrance when the rest is being annihilated without a second thought? Even worse, the south faAade of North Quad that faces the rest of Central Campus is being considered for the service entrances when most people will approach the building from that direction.
Built at the turn of the century through Andrew Carnegie fund, the library does have historical significance – but so does every single Carnegie Library in the Midwest built at that time. There is nothing special about Ann Arbor’s, and Carnegie didn’t care about Ann Arbor in particular. A public library was built in his name to any city that pledged to maintain it afterward. In fact, there were a total of 2,811 Carnegie Libraries built, and 1,946 of them are scattered throughout the entire United States while the rest reside in the United Kingdom or Canada. The special parts of the Frieze Building are where the faculty and students have left their emotions and feelings, like the theater and basement arts facilities. Concern has been brought up about maintaining those features in the new North Quad, but sadly are not being considered.
The University has enough beautiful, turn-of-the-century, neo-historical buildings so that the demolition of this mediocre and not entirely extraordinary library is no big deal. Historically, the University also has many older and more respectable buildings since it was founded nearly one hundred years before Carnegie’s philanthropy. Yet the preservation of this building is deemed important although it may impede the creation of a truly unique architecture designed solely for the university and its needs. If the University is dishing out $79 million for a new multi-programmed facility, they should not receive a “schmorgashbourgh” project but a highly integrated design. The Carnegie Library should be destroyed not as disrespect to the past, but because it has lived a long, meaningful life and should retire in order to provide the University room to grow.
Dingwall is the Daily’s architecture columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.