In a city where most buildings could generously be described as old and boxy, a major new building project is cause for celebration. When that building project's suggested design is conceptually linked to the history and culture of Alaska, and is both elegant and intelligent in form, excitement about the new construction is entirely warranted.
Looking at the concept drawings for the planned Library, Archives, Museum building is thus likely to be an stimulating experience for aesthetically and community-minded Juneauites, especially when they take time to learn more about the ideas behind the design. But it would be a mistake to think of the LAM project as simply a building plan. The groundbreaking aspect of this project exists within the walls of the projected structure, in the organizational changes that its construction will generate. The building would bring together the state's existing library, archives and museum facilities under one roof, integrating the three sections in one central hub dedicated to preserving, collecting and sharing Alaska's treasures.
It's a merger that hasn't been tried very often, said Brian Meissner of ECI/Hyer Architecture in Anchorage.
"There's lots of libraries, archives and museums in the world, but very, very few (buildings) that integrate all three," he said. "It's a new idea. A lot of the effort has been just trying to understand what that (integration) means."
Lead designer Thomas Hacker of THA Architecture in Portland, Ore. said the complex functions of the new building have informed the design at every step.
"It's not just a standard office building, it's like an instrument in that way," he said. "The building is sort of a tool for taking care of the artifacts and the books, so it needs to be carefully designed from the inside out as well as the outside in."
Hacker completed the initial concept design this past spring, and will be in town next week with Meissner to lead a public workshop and continue discussions about the building with LAM staff. The community is encouraged to attend the workshop, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the JACC.
The proposed building will be constructed on the existing site of the Alaska State Museum, as well as on an adjoining lot purchased by the museum in 2002. The plans include 124,000 square feet of new construction, according to a LAM design pamphlet, 80 basement level parking stalls and 40 surface parking stalls, and landscaping that may one day extend across Whittier Street to connect with the State Office Building entrance on Willoughby. Hacker's design gives the entrance to the building roughly the same orientation as the current museum, facing Whittier, with the public areas of the facility located up front and storage areas at the back, toward Foodland.
The front of the building spreads out along a fan-shaped curve, a shape initially inspired by old photos of Juneau's waterfront given to Hacker by the Alaska Historical Collections team. The splayed wings of the building suggest the shape of a line of docks, or boats on the beach, and highlight the importance of Alaskan's relationship with the water.
"I realized in looking at other communities that a similar relationship between the land and the sea was really very evocative of what Alaska is," Hacker said. "It's depended for centuries... on that active relationship between the land and the water."
The proposed construction site is also connected to Juneau's Tlingit community, as the Native village was once located on the site. Meissner said the entire design team is reading Ernestine Hayes' "Blond Indian," a book that describes Hayes experiences growing up in Juneau, to learn more about that aspect of the site's history.
"It really moved me because it tells a story of that site and that place that is tied in to her childhood," Meissner said.
The fan-shaped part of the building, with its curved roof, also suggests the shape of a bird's wing, Hacker said, in a design that recognizes the cultural importance of Alaska's birds, especially the raven and eagle, and symbolically links the protective aspects of a bird's wings to the building's role in guarding the state's treasures. It also has practical applications, in that the curved form suggests ways for the walls to work with, rather than against, Juneau's abundant wind and water.
Allowing natural light to penetrate public areas building is also a high priority.
"It's more important there than almost anywhere I've ever been." Hacker said.
Because the inanimate objects within the building's walls must also be protected from light and other environmental damage, high windows (known as clerestory windows) are one of the ways to satisfy the human light requirements. High windows also accentuate the vertical character of Juneau's landscape, Hacker said, and keep the people within the building connected to the mountains.
"We wanted people to be able to experience that dynamic character of the landscape and the weather as they look up into the sky and into the hills," he said.
Public areas of the building include plans for reading rooms, exhibit halls, classrooms and a small auditorium.
The building design, unveiled this past spring, was met with enthusiasm by LAM staff, said Bob Banghart, chief curator of the Alaska State Museum.
"(Hacker) came back after that first series of meetings with a concept that I think got everybody excited," he said.
This enthusiasm extends way beyond the appearance of the physical structure itself; the project is an all-encompassing one that involves complex restructuring of the way the state preserves, maintains, and provides access to the collections it holds. The new space would allow the integration of all three sections through the use of shared facilities, systems, technologies and staff.
Meissner said the design team has been pushed by LAM staff toward full integration whenever possible.
"We're seeing that functional integration change the design as it evolves, and it's becoming something we've never seen." he said.
Discussions about the building will continue next week when the design team is in town. Banghart said so far the meetings about how to share resources and integrate previously distinct departments in a common space have been enjoyable and stimulating.
"What's fun, I find, is we have to really question what we do and how we do it and how it relates to the constituents that we serve in the state," he said.
Linda Thibodeau, director of Libraries, Archives and Museums, said she's really excited about the increased opportunities the joint building would provide for sharing resources and preserving the state's collections. Reports on the project have outlined cost-savings in several areas, including shared storage of materials, fire-prevention and security systems, a shared laboratory for conservation and microfilm processing, and patron use areas.
"A lot of our collections are in danger and pulling them together like this will really be a benefit," Thibodeau said. "(The collections) have not completely identical needs, but compatible in many ways."
The environmental concerns for the collections are an ongoing concern, she said, citing temperature and water issues among the top worries. A flood in the archives building in 2009 caused extensive damage to historical documents, and mold and insect infestations are also concerns. All three buildings have also far exceeded their storage spaces, with some material from each division now being stored off-site.
Banghart said the museum's current lack of space often means staff must think long and hard before adding a piece to their collection. He believes the new space would give the museum another 30 or 40 years of collection potential.
Having a central storage area for the state's collections will also be beneficial to the public, Thibodeau said. There is a major push to cross-reference records from all three departments so that the public can access the whole range of state holdings on any topic. For example, if someone wants to find out more about spruce root baskets, they would be able to access records from all three divisions, leading them to tangible examples of the craft as well as books and other documents.
Digitizing the records of the collections, though time-consuming, will also help LAM reach people outside of Juneau.
"We're located in Juneau but we have collections that belong to the whole state of Alaska," Thibodeau said. "As much as we can share by becoming more and more digital the better it will be."
The project has not yet been fully funded, but is moving ahead on schedule. Design funding was secured in 2005 and 2008. The total projected cost is $98 million, with a timeline that calls for construction to begin in the spring of 2012 and continue through summer 2014. The opening is set for fall of 2014.
Banghart said that now that initial design has been presented, it should be easier for people to voice their opinions about the project, an exchange he believes can enrich the whole community.
"We've got enough content in the concept of the building that we can now start discussing it in terms that people can get a hold of, and people can respond to," he said.
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