by Jincy IypeJan 13, 2023
Reimagining a building type by combining and mixing functions that have not been juxtaposed before can result in powerful hybrid buildings. This idea, although very popular in architecture for quite some time, remains to be somewhat abstract, and in the minds of many architects and users, it basically translates into removing partitions within offices, schools, and libraries—there are too many such examples to even mention here—or revealing contents to the outside through the use of transparent facades, as in the case of Casa da Musica in Porto by Rem Koolhaas. These projects are typically driven by pure aesthetics and whether these new arrangements make buildings perform better is debatable.
However, there is an example of a new hybrid building type that has emerged in recent years in Chicago which goes beyond an abstract notion of a cool look. I am referring to what is called co-location. This particular co-location comprises a community library on the street level and a housing block for seniors above. We can speak of it as a type because three such projects were built in Chicago and others are on the rise across the US. The ones in Chicago were all completed by local architects in 2019: Independence Library and Apartments by John Ronan, Northtown Library and Apartments by Ralph Johnson of Perkins&Will, and Roosevelt Square Library and Apartments by SOM.
Let’s trace the origins of this new building type and examine how they are put together. In 2016, when Chicago was undergoing a revitalisation of its existing libraries and looking for opportunities to build new ones, a remarkable solution was found: co-location—literally to put one building type on top of the other. The idea was to combine a community library on the street level and a housing block for seniors above. The benefit of such unusual mixing of programs is two-fold. First, this strategy is more affordable and efficient. Two different agencies, in this case, the Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago Public Library, can use the same lot where otherwise two lots would need to be purchased separately. Secondly, shared community spaces can be made much larger and therefore more attractive to the local community. Let’s visit two of the three built hybrid buildings—the Independence Library and Apartments complex in Irving Park and the Northtown Library and Apartments in West Ridge, both on Chicago's North Side.
The library-cum-public housing complex in Irving Park designed by John Ronan is a four-story affordable housing block and two-story community library. It stretches along North Elston Avenue near the intersection with West Irving Park Road, three short blocks to the east of small Independence Park. This festive, uncompromisingly modern building is a refreshing addition to its largely monotonous suburban surrounding—red and yellow brick and stone houses, bungalows, and commercial storefronts that are mostly one to two floors and nothing higher than a few four-story prosaic apartment blocks. The building’s lower part, a local branch library, is built in line with its neighbouring buildings of similar height on both ends. Its minimalist flat façade is sliced into two horizontal bands of similar width—the top is clad in large dark stone panels, while the bottom is continuously glazed in tinted, mullion-less, and highly reflective glass.
The interior is a singular double-height space with cushion-covered bleacher-style seating leading to a mezzanine level with direct access to an elevated park with grass and trees planted over the ground floor parking garage, which is entered from the back street. The remainder of the library’s interior is lined with uninterrupted ribbons of glass on both long sides. White surfaces dominate here—walls, ceiling panels, parapets outlining the mezzanine, bookshelves, furniture, and even light fixtures. The space is also peppered with bright colours—carpeted zones, chairs, cushions, and of course, the books' jackets. A grid of unpainted concrete columns that hold the residences above organises the space. There is a large community room that supports public lectures, gatherings, and events.
Apart from the previously mentioned setback on the garage side, the four-story 44-unit affordable apartment block steps back from North Elston Avenue, leaving space for a narrow strip of grass on the library’s roof at the front. The building’s apartments are arranged on both sides of the double-loaded central corridors. All the units feature brightly-coloured recessed balconies arranged in a checkerboard pattern. This playful design not only makes the building appealing aesthetically but also lets residents identify their apartments from the street. The same colours are applied to the respective apartments’ entry doors, door frames, and floor areas in front of them. The building’s façades demonstrate a masterful use of imaginative combinations of solid and perforated metal panels that make the building’s surfaces quite sensual. The Independence Library and Apartments were designed by Chicago architect John Ronan who is particularly known in Chicago for his IIT Innovation Center (2018) on the IIT campus on the South Side and the Poetry Foundation (2011) in River North.
The second project, Northtown Library and Apartments is located diagonally across from the northwest corner of Warren (Laurence) Park in West Ridge. It is another take on co-location. It has the exact same program—an affordable housing block with 44 apartments for seniors on top of a community library. The building takes over its own block. The ground floor is fully transparent and features generous setbacks utilised for planted areas and pockets of public spaces. The library is anchored at both ends—a large double-height lobby and community room on the south side, while the north side houses the YouMedia learning lab. The lobby supports community performances and includes a space for an artist-in-residence. Here, all attention is focused on Eclectic Current, a full-height, colourful mixed-media mural by neighbourhood artist Chris Silva, who created it with input from local residents. These public areas are accessible after regular library hours. A much smaller second floor includes offices, community meeting spaces, a fitness centre, a laundry room, and the library’s green roof with pathways and benches.
One particularly interesting feature inside the library is an open-roof internal reading garden. Triangular in plan, this appealing courtyard is glazed all around and, in addition to providing secure outdoor space, it floods the interior with daylight and visually brings in landscaping, even if only glimpsed between the bookshelves. This east-side space should be visited in the first half of the day before the sun goes west. The apartments are stacked on the third and fourth floors within a serpentine structure that incorporates central double-loaded corridors. These floors are precariously cantilevered at both ends. The curved geometry helps to fit in more units, while the resulting setbacks allow for deeper and more useful green-roof areas on both sides. These two top floors incorporate glazed community spaces distinguished by bright yellow that perhaps symbolises the inhabitants' golden years. These areas, as well as all the apartments here, grant expansive views over the immediate low-rise neighbourhood. The building’s structure is particularly playful on the south end where it is supported by muscular V-shaped round columns that, together with the building’s snake-like body and colour, contribute to the perception of this whole structure as a giant caterpillar. Each apartment has one designated parking spot on the ground level to the west of the building.
Northtown was designed by Ralph Johnson, the architect of several other major projects in Chicago, including his iconic butterfly-shaped Rush University Campus Transformation Project on the Near West Side, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, and Skybridge condominium in West Loop. While co-location came about as a particular circumstance, not only it can become a viable model for other cities, but the very concept of co-location can be expanded into other combinations of building types. It is this direction of combining the efforts of architects, city planners, local authorities, and developers that can broaden the role of architecture in improving the quality of life for people across all cultures and income levels.