At 200, The Athenaeum Thinks About The Library Of The Future


Athenaeum, image courtesy of the Athenaeum

Athenaeum, image courtesy of the Athenaeum

With 200 years behind it, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, the library and architectural archive on Washington Square, is seeking visions for the library of the future. Tonight, at 5:30, officials will launch an architectural design competition, “Looking Forward: Reimagining the Athenaeum of Philadelphia,” that asks designers and architects to render a new Athenaeum for 2050. Details on the competition are HERE. The best designs will be showcased at a reception on December 5. “This is an opportunity to rethink the Athenaeum as an institution, perhaps even libraries in general, based on how they serve the community,” says competition organizer Bruce Laverty, who has managed the Athenaeum’s large architectural collection since 1983. Much of that collection–26,000 books, 200,000 drawings and 300,000 photographs–covers the 19th century, the most critical period in Philadelphia’s development.

The 2050 designs will be conceptual only–after decades of incremental restoration, the 1847 John Notman designed Italianate Palazzo style building isn’t going anywhere. However, Laverty says the idea of the competition is “to bring together folks to think about libraries and how they might change.” The jurors, who include Billie Tsien, from the firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, designers of the Barnes Foundation Museum (a reimagining of an old institution), and Michelle Delk, of the firm Snøhetta, known globally for reworking libraries and now in the midst of the design for a new Temple University library, will be looking for design vision as much as insight into the ways we will access information and scholarly materials in the future.

Busch Room, Athenaeum photo: Lauren Drapala

Busch Room, Athenaeum photo: Lauren Drapala

The Athenaeum has long been at the center of architectural life in Philadelphia. The original competition in the 1840s that Notman won engaged the nation’s top architects to envision a building that would “disseminate useful knowledge” and become the “pride and ornament of Philadelphia.” In 1871, two decades before the establishment of the first architectural school here (at the University of Pennsylvania), the Athenaeum sought to become the architectural library of the city. A century later, this came to reality. “In Philadelphia, it takes a long time for things to happen, but they do happen,” said Laverty.

Now, he said, the Athenaeum would like both to be at the center of reimagining the library as a civic institution for the 21st century and of architectural life in Philadelphia. To that end, he imagines this may be the first of many architectural competitions to come.


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About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-founder of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (with Peter Woodall and Joseph E.B. Elliott) and two novels, Everything is Borrowed and Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of Who Will Speak for America, an anthology forthcoming in June 2018, and the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."

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