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Smith College Neilson Library

Preserving Books and History

Maya Lin Studio

Smith College Neilson Library
By Elisa Grossi -

The library of the future, equipped with digital technology and spaces meeting the needs of today’s students, has come about by going back to the library of the past and keeping alive the fascination of paper and ink. This was the vision behind the renovation of the Neilson Library at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, by American designer Maya Lin, and colleague William Bialosky. Located in the center of the campus, the original library was designed in the late 1800s by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, also famous for creating Manhattan’s Central Park. Over time though, several additions to the library had blocked views over the rest of the campus and altered its distribution circuits. The original three stories had been turned into six, producing in a series of cramped low-ceiling spaces. So, as well as reestablishing the library’s visual and spatial connection with the campus, the renovation brief also had to reinstate open, welcoming environments promoting a sense of community and dialogue.

The Neilson Library preserves the existing neoclassical brick façade but rethinks the whole complex so as to bring back to life Olmsted’s master plan. That meant doing away with all the additions and accretions accumulated down the years and completely gutting the interior. In addition, two large new curved wings with large expanses of glazing were added on either side of the historic orthogonal building. Not only a signature feature of the designer’s esthetic, these rounded organic volumes encourage inclusive use of the interior spaces, eliminating secluded corners conducive to isolation. Conceived as “jewel boxes”, and named after two former college deans, Ruth Simmons and Mary Maples Dunn, the two constructions connect directly with the main building.

Flexibility is the underlining principle behind the interior spatial design that provides for a range of activities including...

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