Pine Bluff, Arkansas was once a jewel of the Mississippi Delta, positioned where southern pines meet vast farmlands along the Arkansas River. Like many delta cities, Pine Bluff was in a steady decline as industries relocated and river traffic waned. The city that once boasted 70,000 people fell to 40,000 in population, gaining a negative national reputation for crime, hurting its ability to draw industry and retain homegrown talent. A once thriving Main Street that boasted the State’s largest theater and a delta destination, now stood lined with empty dilapidated storefronts…downtown felt abandoned. When several buildings collapsed onto Main Street and others on the verge of collapse, city leaders and citizens bonded together to save Main Street and create economic incentives through a series of tax initiatives; the citizens wanted to reverse the course of their city. One initiative was to set knowledge to the forefront with a new Main Library positioned on a prominent Main Street corner where buildings had burned/collapsed as a symbol of rebirth for not only downtown, but Pine Bluff as a whole.
Public meetings revealed the desire to create a “living room for the community” that focuses heavily on children and youth to give hope, encouragement, and the desire for knowledge to spark the desire to stay, reinvest, and rebuild their city. Citizens also wanted a place that was uplifting, inspirational, and full of natural light, while feeling safe and secure. They wanted a place that pointed to a future that “lifted expectations”. What emerged was a community-embedded supportive learning center, offering not only books, but also a performance space, a teaching kitchen, recording studios, café (coming soon) and computer training for adults and youth.
A building program that equally divided books with more dedicated education/specialized spaces generated a diagram of two distinct parallel forms, shifted to open views and accept light, and articulated by function and the site’s odd shape. Public stacks are in storefronts along Main Street with the children’s library framed above: knowledge is on display. A dynamic cantilevered open auditorium floats completely free above the main entrance, lifting to the north as a bold progressive language of hope. Auditorium steps connect the children’s library up to a Teen Loft that overlooks the entire library and downtown, a dynamic space symbolizing the importance of young people to the city. Surprisingly, the open steps have drawn the local university’s students as well, choosing to study and hang out at the public library over their own campus.
The library has two primary entrances connecting Main Street’s intersection through the building to parking on the west. The plan parti creates a pedestrian intersection at the circulation desk as an internal street lit from above. A continuous clerestory allows the cloud-like roof to cleanly float free, flooding both floors with light. The west façade bends with the odd shape of the site due to a private property interrupting the block, connecting to existing parking through an activity lawn. A bold oval shaped cylinder housing utilitarian functions becomes the hinge point for the bending form, and a visual marker of entrance from the surrounding parking and streets. The western façade is reminiscent of books on a shelf, utilizing slender windows of varying widths and vertical fins to mitigate heat gain.
The Pine Bluff Library is a beacon for the value reinvesting in citizens through education, and a symbol of hope for what Pine Bluff can be.