Schwartz/Silver Architects

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The Rotch Library of Art, Architecture and Planning is one of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s five divisional libraries. Housing the second largest collection of architectural documents in the United States, the library serves as an important research center for the Institute, and the Boston-Cambridge architectural community. Therefore it was essential that this library be an example of excellence in architecture. As a central resource for three academic departments, the development of the design also required Schwartz/Silver to build consensus among a diverse group of interests, including MIT's Director of Libraries and the Departments of Facilities and Planning.

However, the greatest challenge presented by the project was the unique site. Plans for the library expansion were many years in the making but had been abandoned after several architects failed to solve the issues of the site. The only space available, adjoining the Institute’s entry dome, presented a seemingly unsolvable problem: it was also an essential service yard with a vital emergency access point for several buildings, and the only turning space for trucks in the area.

Schwartz/Silver therefore set to work on design on the understanding that the building would have to start eighteen feet above the roadway to allow trucks to pass beneath the building. Various ordinances set the height of the addition to be no more than the central domed building which the original library adjoined. The new program required 9,000 square feet of renovated space and a 21,000 square foot addition.

It was determined that the required square footage could be obtained with six floors on the 30 foot wide by 100 foot long site. However, to keep within the height restrictions, the floor slabs could be no more than eight inches thick and no more than eight feet apart. To make this structurally sound, the floors were suspended from massive roof girders. With frequent hangers hidden between the stacks, the weight of the books is carried from above, eliminating beams in the floors, and allowing thin eight-inch floor slabs.

Separating the addition from the existing building is a narrow (5 feet), tall (55 feet) skylit slot which runs the full length of the building. The slot allows the new and old buildings to stand independently, meets seismic code requirements, and preserves the 1930s facade as an architectural artifact. The skylights allow natural light to enter the library and the architecture and urban design studios located on the upper levels of the main building. Studios and offices in the upper levels of the old building also have views through the library addition. The old library was renovated to include a new entrance, main counter, offices, and reading room.

Construction was phased to ensure ongoing operation throughout the academic year.

MIT’s Library of Art, Architecture and Planning has been honored with many important awards, including the National Library Award from the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association, an Honor Award from the Boston Society of Architects, and the 1994 Gold Medal of the City of Boston and the Boston Society of Architects. The Building has been featured in Progressive Architecture (USA), as well as in publications in Italy, Germany and Japan.

photographs (c) Chuck Choi

MIT Rotch Library

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Library addition / renovation

Photography: ©

Client: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Size (sf): 26,700

Cost: $5,800,000

Completed: 1991

Awards: AIA/ALA Library Building Award, Harleston Parker Medal from the City of Boston / BSA

Published In: Architecture 4/92, Progressive Architecture 5/91

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