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Harold Washington Library, Peculiar PoMo at its Brashest

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For Curbed's new Bossy Building series, we're hoisting up one building a week that demonstratively throws its weight around as a dominant piece of architecture in the streetscape. It might even alter the aura of a neighborhood. Harold Washington Library is this week's focus. Drive the conversation by nominating buildings both muscular and influential from across Chicago (you may also nominate in the comments below).

The window was wide open for a progressive and innovative new central library in the late 1980s, but, in the words of archicritic Lynn Becker, officials instead "boarded the short-lived Post-Modern express". There's no looking to the future with architect Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge's Harold Washington Library, the sober selection over entries from SOM, Helmut Jahn and others. Admittedly many of the finalist designs were mired in a cutesy PoMo mentality as well, and with cheaper materials. So we got what we got, and if the internal layout were more friendly and democratic (twisted hallways, off-center lobby, crass popular library, nonsensical escalator placement) it might be a more acclaimed institution today.

Harold Washington Library is definitely a gawker building— it's where the eye goes when traveling State Street downtown. And it adds a Gothic stoicism to the "L" circling by, making it seem ageless. Mass is nothing to be afraid of when it comes to your metropolis' central library, but the stingy number of windows at street level coupled with an impenetrable granite base might have been the wrong thing for an otherwise varied and permeable streetwall. And what's the big idea giving the Winter Garden—HWL's best space—pathetic access on the 9th floor?

If there's an aspect of the library that softens its blow for users, we'd have to think it's the vibrant and rotating collection of art (works that are also place markers distinguishing one floor of stacks from another). Otherwise, if you're merely passerby you're screwed. Join us next week when we attempt to travel outside the Loop.
·Harold Washington Library Center Design/Build Competition [CPL]
·Harold Washington Library Coverage [Curbed Chicago]