The Boston Public Library’s Johnson Building Is Infused With New Life

After decades of decline, the Boston Public Library’s bright and renovated Johnson Building lets the light in.

Courtesy of
Bruce T. Martin
The distinct architectural styles of the library’s two buildings’ façades on Boylston Street.

Brutalism can be tough to love. Characterized by their critics as hulking concrete edifices that turned weather-streaked and brooding over the decades, this most loathed of architectural styles has sparked new interest in recent years. While detractors bemoan the aesthetics, fans—architects, historians, preservationists—remind us that these structures from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s once spoke of a bright future for the city and represented dedicated investment in the civic realm.

Still for many, Philip Johnson’s 1972 addition to the Boston Public Library’s historic Back Bay location was one of the worst offenders—blighted when compared to its connecting neighbor, McKim, Mead & White’s Renaissance Revival and Beaux-Arts masterpiece built in 1895. Johnson’s design combined Brutalism with a historicist bent and mirrored the former scheme of an arcade courtyard surrounded by stacks and reading rooms with a nine-square structural grid and a central three-story atrium. For the addition’s façade, he translated the original’s stately pattern of arches into three large vaults on each side of the building.

Robert Benson Photography

The atrium of the Johnson Building. New reading areas surround the perimeter.

Robert Benson Photography

The existing atrium was one of the most challenging spaces to relight because the three-story space was so tall and there was no way to conceal fixtures.

The public was unimpressed. Large granite plinths on the exterior blocked natural light; tinted glazing left the interior dark and murky. It didn’t help that over the years attendance dropped and the structure suffered from inattention. But that changed when Boston architecture firm William Rawn Associates, Architects (WRA) and Cambridge, Mass.–based lighting designers Lam Partners finished a two-part renovation in 2016.

“The Johnson Building was the second most hated building in Boston; the first is City Hall,” says Lam Partners principal Paul Zaferiou, referring to the Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles building, also in the Brutalist style and completed in 1968. “It was hated because it was neglected. Lights were burning out, there were hideous rows of fluorescent lighting, and no pleasant place to sit and read.”

According to Zaferiou, when the design team embarked on the architectural makeover, then Boston Mayor Thomas Menino laid out an ambitious mission: The library must become a lively cultural center for the city.

Robert Benson Photography

The new lobby and entrance forge a greater connection between the library and the city making it a “lively cultural center.”

Although the exterior of the building is protected by the Boston Landmarks Commission and was required to remain untouched, the dank interior of the foyer was stripped back to its structure. The plinth planters that blocked light into the ground floor were removed and new clear windows were installed, a radical move that took careful negotiation with preservationists. “Libraries have changed fundamentally in the last 50 years; this library needed to be connected to the city, to be welcoming, not a bunker,” says architect and WRA principal Clifford Gayley. “But opening up the ground floor of the building flew in the face of the landmark status.”

Robert Benson Photography

In Boylston Hall, LED downlights integrated into the wood slat ceiling provide general illumination and provide layout flexibility for the various activities that take place in the multipurpose space.

Before the team started work, Gayley and the other designers undertook extensive research into Johnson’s built work and writings. This allowed them to be more sensitive to both his original vision and his shortcomings, such as with the library’s entry. WRA met regularly with the staff of the Boston Landmark Commission and together they moved forward a scheme that would ensure that the library would thrive.

Robert Benson Photography

Boylston Hall, the library’s new two-story multifunctional space, opens the building to the street and features a wooden vaulted ceiling, mobile carts, and welcoming general light.

True to Lam Partners’ philosophy to understand the spirit of the building and fold light into what the architects were trying to achieve, the lighting firm’s integrated illumination scheme supports the overall vision for the newly light-filled entry spaces along Boylston Street and act as a “living room” for the city. Named Boylston Hall, this two-story multifunctional space includes the main lobby, a café, a studio for WGBH radio, and an enlarged and refreshed connection to the McKim Library. “The whole feeling of the lobby is one of community,” says Zaferiou.

Robert Benson Photography
The interiors, as seen in the Movies & Music area, are brought to life with a new, colorful material palette.

Here, the WRA team created a series of long wooden vaults that are suspended from the existing concrete ceiling. Each one has a small cove at its bottommost edge that conceals a 13W-per-linear-foot 3500K LED strip with a wide beam to create an ambient glow. Recessed 6-inch-diameter 57W 3500K LED downlights are positioned between slats to wash the floor with light. Zaferiou explains that the team wanted to create a welcoming general light, but that it was also important to keep the lighting flexible. And because the lobby is intended to serve so many functions, the architects created a series of sculptural book carts that can be moved and reconfigured depending on the activity. Lam Partners integrated surface-mounted 3W-per-linear-foot 3000K LED tapelight—in an extruded aluminum channel with a snap-in lens—into the mobile structures and equipped each one with a power source to plug into the floor.

Robert Benson Photography
The stacks are lit with staggered and suspended T5HO 3500K linear direct fixtures.

The existing atrium was one of the most challenging spaces to relight because the three-story space was so tall and there was no way to conceal the fixtures. Lam Partners retrofitted the existing perimeter ceiling slot, swapping out energy-hogging high-powered 1,000W halogen floodlights for adjustable 50W 3000K LED spots. The new low-maintenance fixtures were zoned on a lighting control system to create different scenes, and use a fraction of the wattage in order to meet the City of Boston’s energy efficiency goals for public buildings.

Robert Benson Photography
In the Children’s room, broad soffits define a smaller-scaled and playful space.

After decades of dreary utility, the Johnson Building’s interiors are now bright, colorful spaces that welcome the public. “There’s amazing transparency,” Zaferiou exclaims. “It’s a great metaphor for a modern library: Information is transparent and easily accessible.”

Robert Benson PhotographySuspended T5HO 3500K linear direct fixtures and downlights provide general illumination for the reading areas.

Project: Boston Public Library Central Branch Johnson Building Improvements, Boston • Client: City of Boston • Architect: William Rawn Associates, Architects, Boston • Lighting Designer: Lam Partners, Cambridge, Mass. • Structural Engineer:LeMessurier, Boston • M/E/P Engineer: Cosentini, Boston • Project Size: 156,000 square feet • Project Cost: $78 million • Lighting Cost: $1.3 million • Watts per Square Foot: 0.72 • Code Compliance: Massachusetts State Building Code (IEBC-2009 with 780 CMR)

Acolyte • ALM • Beta-Calco • Bega • Birchwood • Belfer • B-K Lighting • Edison Price • Eureka • i2Systems • Inter-lux • Limburg/Bega • Philips Color Kinetics • Philips Lightolier • Pinnacle Architectural Lighting • PMC Lighting • Schmitz • Scott Architectural Lighting

This article originally appeared in the 2017 Nov/Dec issue of Architectural Lighting under the title, “Back from Brutal”

Mimi ZeigerMimi Zeiger

Mimi Zeiger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and critic. The author of New MuseumsTiny Houses and Micro Green: Tiny Houses in Nature, she teaches in Art Center’s Media Design Practices MFA program and is co-president of the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design.

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