Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

West 53rd Street in Manhattan is home to the ever-expanding Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which fills close to half of the north side of the block between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas. While a roster of exhibitions draws more than a million visitors a year from all over the globe to its galleries, across the street a more local phenomenon is taking place: People are flocking to the public library.

Since it opened in 2016, the 53rd Street Library, designed by Mexico City and New York–based TEN Arquitectos with New York’s HLB Lighting Design, has become a destination for locals looking for a public space to work, study, or take in an event. The bright, 28,000-square-foot space defies the traditional definition of a musty branch library. While New York Public Library (NYPL) cardholders can still check out books, the library is designed to function as a kind of cultural and community hub. There are plenty of spots to plug in a laptop and patrons are allowed to bring in their lattes or lunchboxes. At its center is a double-height amphitheater; a cascade of wide oak bleachers that look out towards the street. The art and culture institutions on West 53rd Street like to partner with the library and hold events—such as a string quartet performance—in the space. “In an age of reading books on Kindles, people go to library to get work done,” says HLB senior principal and lighting designer Barbara Horton. “The stacks aren’t as important anymore.”

This evolution is part of a larger transformation happening on West 53rd Street. In 2008, the Donnell Library Center, the existing NYPL branch, was closed for redevelopment, and its famous collection of original Winnie the Pooh dolls were transferred to the Children’s Center on 42nd Street. The replacement library is located in a small area on the lower floors of the Baccarat, a luxury 50-story hotel and apartment tower, adjacent to the library, also designed by TEN Arquitectos.

For Horton and the HLB team, the lighting goal was to create a seamless connection between the daylight pouring in through the two-story glass façade along West 53rd Street and the other functional spaces in the building. The result is a neutral solution, which results in an ambient glow throughout the library.

To achieve a continuous spatial flow on the main floor, the architects used a monolithic ceiling made up of closely spaced white battens. Horton placed high-performance surface-mounted 2.7W-per-linear-foot LED fixtures above the battens on the ground floor. Because the ceiling height in the auditorium changes from 12 to 34 feet due to the amphitheater seating, the design team needed a higher-performance fixture in order to uniformly light the space, so they used a ceiling-mounted 12W LED array over the bleachers, the performance area, and at the ground-level corridor. The fixtures are connected to a control system in order to dim for performances and adjust to daylight. Indeed, the first 15 feet of ceiling from the windows are on a daylight sensor.

The design team was sensitive to color temperature in the amphitheater space, where they needed to blend natural and electric light. The upper portion of the space was full of cool natural light during the day, but at the lower level, the wood material palette created a much warmer visual atmosphere. The team tested different lamps in order create the right balance. “We did an in-house mock-up to see what would make the space pop,” says Horton. “The cream-colored ceiling battens looked yellow under 3000K, so we used 3500K lamps.”

An expanded mesh ceiling unifies the lower level, bringing together the reading areas and stacks. HLB placed suspended 26W 3000K T5 fluorescent fixtures above perforated ceiling. The utilitarian choice allowed the team to exceed LEED Silver requirements by 12 percent and stay on budget. Tasklighting was built into furniture at communal tables and shared workstations.

Tucked under the stepped seating of the auditorium, the children’s area presented two unique challenges: How to bring daylight into the subterranean space and where to mount fixtures? Since they couldn’t install lighting on the wooden underside of the bleachers, HLB used wall-mounted 26W 3000K T5 fluorescents to provide an even wash of light on the walls and give the tall volume a sense of intimacy. To bring natural light deep into the cellar, the design team set a pair of oculi in the auditorium floor. These skylights direct daylight from the grand West 53rd Street windows into the cozy children’s storytelling nook.

For Horton, success is that the library is more than just an NYPL branch. She was happy to see reviews on Yelp that called it an “indoor park” and oasis from the fluorescent lights of nearby office buildings. “The neighborhood understands that they too can use the library,” she says. The lighting design team was very excited when strings of paper cranes made in a children’s origami workshop were hung in front of the lights. While crowds of tourists flock to MoMA’s galleries across the street to see Matisse and Warhol, the brightly colored paper birds are a vivid pop of art against the library’s stately gray walls.

Project: New York Public Library, 53rd Street Library, New York
Client: New York Public Library
Architect: TEN Arquitectos, New York office
Lighting Designer: HLB Lighting Design, New York office
Project Size: 28,000 square feet
Project Cost: $20 million
Lighting Cost: $53,000
Watts per Square Foot: 1.3
Energy Code Compliance: 12 percent reduction of NY IECC Energy Code

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This story was originally published in Architectural Lighting.