An exploration of what it means to live in, build on, and design for a city of pervasive toxicity.
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Inaugurated in October, 2020 and finally opened to the public ten months later, the new Greenpoint Library and Environmental Center was a very long time coming. But not just because of Covid lockdowns, or the delays caused by the discovery of asbestos-laced remnants from two previous library buildings at the construction site. The building’s actual origins date back 140 years, to a plume of oil that accumulated and migrated from the refineries along Newtown Creek into the groundwater and under nearby homes. Money from a long-fought settlement for that massive spill seeded the library’s conception, design, and construction.
The oil spill is just one part of the legacy of contamination in the neighborhood — though amidst new development and residents, much of it is now hard to see. With its industrial facilities and working class and immigrant populations, Greenpoint was a convenient place to locate the city’s largest wastewater treatment plant, a radioactive waste storage facility, and waste transfer sites galore. Today, brownfields are being remediated and redeveloped at a rapid clip, and the cleanup of Newtown Creek is on the horizon. As many of Greenpoint’s environmental burdens are mitigated or recede, the stories of decades of struggle are collected and preserved in its library. Jason Roberts of Marble Fairbanks, the library’s architect, along with Brooklyn Public Library’s environmental justice coordinator, Acacia Thompson, take us on a virtual tour, describing how the building’s design and programming will work together to reckon with a polluted past and carry environmental activism into the future. From the earth science lessons inscribed in the windows and gardens, to spaces for new educational programs, to meeting rooms for community organizations, the library is preparing new generations to stay vigilant and keep up the fight. – MM
The current Greenpoint Library is the third to be built on this site. The original Carnegie library was built in 1906, torn down in the 1970s, and then replaced with the small, single-story “Lindsay Box.” Around the same time as the construction of the second library, the Coast Guard discovered that over 50 acres of the Brooklyn-Queens Aquifer had been polluted by industry that had sprouted up along Newtown Creek (it was later learned to actually be over 100 acres). So, in 2003, the City sued 23 oil companies responsible for the pollution, settling with all of them except for Exxon Mobil.
In 2010, New York State finally settled with Exxon Mobil for $25 million. The Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund (GCEF) was created to manage these funds, and the community got to choose which public projects they wanted to allocate the money to. In 2014, the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) received the largest grant from GCEF to replace the existing library with a new state of the art facility and environmental education center to become a hub for environmental awareness, activism, and education. Something that was really unique about the brief for this project was that all these elements were always conceived as being part of one thing, and they really imagined this exact scenario where there would be a person, like Acacia, who could help spread the knowledge and programming from this hub for environmental awareness out throughout the other branches of the library system.
It’s an opportunity for a world class library system to take a stand about environmental issues and the climate emergency. When people come into the library, they have a sense of trust. And if we can bring climate and environmental issues into that space, as fact, that’s a unique position. I see it spreading out across our library system and being an example for other library systems and civic institutions.
We think about four different aspects of programming. The first thing we’re going to do is provide robust environmental education for a range of audiences. We’re also going to host workshops and lectures on environmental and sustainability-related topics. We’re going to provide meaningful opportunities to connect people to plant life, and to encourage dialogue around food sources. And finally, we’re going to provide space for community groups to meet, opportunities for them to learn about how to advocate for their families and their neighbors, and how to deal with environmental justice issues.
Could we keep any of the existing building and build on top of it? We determined pretty quickly that this option was neither possible, nor desired, given the new program. So we made the recommendation to tear it down and start anew. The new building provides the neighborhood with significantly enlarged indoor and outdoor spaces to house expanded activities related to the exploration of environment as well as, of course, everyday library use.
It’s a branch, right? A lot of people are going to come to this as just a branch and, because of the decisions that were made in design, there’s opportunities for people to come upon information. I’ve already had opportunities to table out in the plaza, and to do different programs to get people in; it’s such a generous space outside. I’ve talked to a lot of people out there that normally would not come into the library. You get a lot of people enticed to come to this space because it’s so interesting.
We took a two-story volume and rotated the bottom half of it to maximize the different types of outdoor space possible on the site. This created a larger open plaza at the corner of Norman and Leonard. Because outdoor space was so important here, we wanted a variety of different landscapes. We maximized views out to these landscapes and to the street, and shaded these openings using orientation-specific shading strategies.
The upper volume of the building is clad in cedar boards which were sandblasted by an artist in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to remove a portion of the soft inner layer of the material, showcasing the wood’s natural texture. Then the lower volume is clad in glass fiber reinforced concrete panels, which actually use the sandblasted cedar boards as a mold. We think the contrast in how the materials will age and weather over time is really interesting. The building also utilizes what’s called a rainscreen system, so all of the insulation is on the outside of the building. Meanwhile, the solar panels that sit over the mechanical unit produce a little over ten percent of the building’s energy consumption, and are bifacial, meaning they cast sunlight that’s cast down onto them but also the sunlight that’s reflected up off the roof.
One of the many interesting environmental features of the library is the way the mechanical system works. The large open spaces of the library utilize a highly efficient heating and cooling system called displacement ventilation. A large amount of air is introduced at a really low velocity, close to the floor, through these big grills underneath a lot of the stacks along the walls. Our bodies attract the air, creating individualized thermal plumes around each person. This delivers fresh air to everyone and removes a lot of the contaminants associated with traditional HVAC systems while creating a really comfortable environment. This system uses smaller fans and supplies fresh air efficiently throughout all of the seasons.
We also wanted the building to serve as a learning tool, so we added a series of “solar windows” that are calibrated to capture the sun during the year’s solstices and equinoxes. From the outside, the windows have a very regular shape and rhythm. But on the inside, on those days, the sun will shine through one of these openings and will register with a marking on the floor. It’s almost like a building sundial.
The library is an opportunity to really become grounded and connect with nature, even in the urban environment, because we know that if you love something, you take care of it. I feel like we have a deep responsibility to encourage every person we can to look outside these beautiful windows. I think every single kid in Greenpoint should know what a combined sewer overflow is, you know?
Wherever we could, we wanted to introduce a tactile relationship to the natural environment, like the wood handrail on the main stair, or the pull handles of the doors leading to the outdoor areas. There are meeting rooms for small groups, and each one features a wood wall containing a different species of tree native to Greenpoint. Likewise, the wallpaper that greets visitors on each floor features plant and insect life related to the gardens on their corresponding level.
It’s the wood in the media rooms that I always nerd out on. I ask my colleagues: “Did you know that the wood in the red oak room is in fact red oak?”
Why we chose certain materials, why we oriented the building a certain way, why we chose the plants that we chose: we wanted to tell a story. In a lot of these cases, there are actually plaques on the walls and on the glass that describe what’s going on, so that people can understand why things were done the way they were done.
We created an environmental curriculum on a range of topics, from soil cycles to solar energy, using the GCEF Grant that also helped pay for some of the building. We’re going to have our librarians host this curriculum with kids.
When I got to create my wish list of workshops for adults, it included gardening, birding, foraging, mycology, botanical drawing, herbalism, and tree and wildlife identification, which is very close to my heart. We’re covering all the local environmental history. We’ll cover household energy efficiency, home solar installation, composting, textile mending, and watersheds. I have big plans to build a tool library. We’ll have eco-book clubs. And all of this will utilize the unique design features of the building to illustrate these environmental concepts.
The Teen Zone on the second floor doubles as one of three “Eco Labs.” These are large community spaces that come equipped with sinks, stainless steel countertops, and under-counter refrigerators, all prepped for future uses of environmental study and experimentation.
Outside the Eco Labs are exhibition cases, and the Eco Lounge is really designed so we can do exhibitions in there. That’s where I’ll be telling different stories about the environmental history of the neighborhood. A lot of people live here that don’t know about the oil spill, which is insane. A lot of people don’t know that there were supposed to be two power plants on the waterfront in Greenpoint. And they’re going to happen upon this information, and they’re also going to find out that we’re having programming with the activists who helped prevent that. All these little design decisions are going to make it so that people can come into the information on their own.
The materials in the library are really unfussy. It’s meant to be a working space, the idea being that you could go out into the Reading Garden and have an outdoor activity, and then bring that inside, get water on the floor and make a mess — that’s the point.
It was really driven by the community, by listening to what they wanted to do in the space and really responding to that. We did tabling sessions in the old library where we used sticky notes on the boards to capture ideas of things that people wanted in the new building. At one of those workshops, the idea came up: “I want to be able to keep specimens in the library.” Okay, how do you keep specimens at the library? Well, you’re going to need a refrigerator, so maybe these meeting rooms can do double duty and become places where you can conduct experiments. Well, if you want to do experiments, then you’re going to want to have a sink. And if you want to have a sink, you’re going to have water and it’s going to get messy, so you want the sinks to be stainless steel and the floors to be concrete.
Marble Fairbanks listened so much to the community and really thought of what we could do at the library — that’s why I have that huge list of programs that I’m going to run, because we have this space. I used those refrigerators to stratify seeds this spring. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if those conversations hadn’t happened. I think the programming is going to be just inexhaustible, because of the space. Sinks! Sinks are key.
The old library had a 20-person capacity community room; that was it. That was something that the community desperately needed: more and different types of meeting spaces. So we have three six- to eight-person meeting rooms in the building, all with technology hookups. We have that big divisible room at the front. And even the Teen Zone was thought of as being very flexible. It’s also the Eco Lab, and all of the furniture is on wheels to make that space as flexible as possible. All of the inspiration really came from the community and the community’s needs.
I’ve been to a lot of scoping meetings in Greenpoint, and a lot of times the city officials really ignore what the community has to say. So to finally be listened to is really special.
The building really ensures that the community has a free, physical space to congregate and synthesize ideas. I’m a resident of Greenpoint and I’m a community activist here. The first time I saw the plans for the library, before I was with the library, I was just so excited about the meeting spaces, because I spent a lot of time in church basements and community rooms at senior centers, and it was just so inspiring to be able to envision our community being able to get together and advocate for each other in these spaces.
We have an environmental history project that tells the story of Greenpoint; we have a very robust environmental advocacy network here. What’s happened in our community has really made it so the people who live here had no choice but to fight. To have this space to get together and talk about the issues that we’re currently dealing with, not only in Greenpoint but across the city and in the world, is super inspiring.
I think our role will be to help the neighborhood not forget. That’s one thing we do with the oral histories; if you listen to them, it’s just bananas. You’ve got old-timers here who don’t want to talk about the environmental history because they felt like they couldn’t do anything about it. And then you’ve got the activists, and you’ve got new people. The environmental gentrification in the neighborhood is really intense.
We want to be the place that helps everyone remember, where people can come and listen to those stories. It’s becoming a very transitory neighborhood. You’ve got people who come in for short amounts of time, and people who have no idea about the neighborhood’s history. So this is an opportunity for them to happen upon this information. One of the things that was hardest in the oral histories was getting the people involved who had been here for a long time. We have a huge Polish community here, and a very large Latin American community that has largely been ignored in this story. Our role will be to just be the repository of memory.
In oral histories collected for the library by Acacia Thompson, Mitch Waxman and Willis Elkins talk about the pollution of Newtown Creek and the Newtown Creek Alliance’s work to improve public access, preserve industrial uses, and remediate the creek. These interviews are part of the Greenpoint Environmental History Project.
I know you mentioned being a repository for stories, but the library is an actual repository for reports on environmentalism in the neighborhood as well.
Anytime someone reports on a brownfield site in Greenpoint, they send us the information. So if you are interested in remediation records, we have beautifully designed cabinets that hold the hard copies, and we also have them on our website. We want to be another trusted resource — this is where you go to get the information on those brownfields that you’re curious about.
The landscape is an integral part of the building and its story. We worked with the landscape architecture firm SCAPE. At the street level, striated stone pavings are oriented in the same direction glaciers moved through the area during the last Ice Age. A bioswale has also been created to prevent rainwater from entering the stormwater system and reducing the chance of flooding in the streets. A bioswale also helps keep debris and pollutants from entering the regional waterways.
On the second floor, a mounded vegetative “nest” creates an intimate setting for solitary reading and group activities. This is the Reading Garden. It also features a rainwater cistern which collects rainwater that falls onto the roof of the library.
The uppermost roof, the Demonstration Garden, features a Pollinator Garden as well as a series of planters that can be used by community groups or local schools — or Acacia in this case — to grow herbs and vegetables. And then there’s also a hand pump on this roof that is used to pump the water that’s collected in the cistern back up onto the roof, which can be used to water the plants. But it’s also another educational moment, and kids really like that.
The Demonstration Garden has three parts right now. We’re working on an edible raised bed and a kitchen bed, along with a wellness bed, that we can utilize for herbalism and botanical workshops. The idea is that the community’s going to help build it. We’re in talks with the New York Horticultural Society to help run programming so that we can do that with our local schools.
SCAPE’s landscaping is just phenomenal, and the Pollinator Garden is gorgeous all year round. You cannot believe how dense the Reading Garden is. It’s only been a year and a half, Jason?
I’m glad you brought that up, because we planted the Reading Garden on, like, March 15, 2020. And then everything shut down. When I came back to the site a couple of months later, everything had just flourished. And it’s only flourished more since.
On day one, as soon as we put that green swatch on the roof, I knew that someone was going to need to maintain that. We can’t create all these landscapes without having some understanding of that. So there were a lot of discussions about partners: partnering with people in the community that would do it, or having gardeners come in. Just in the way that it’s designed, SCAPE is very cognizant of plants that are native and stuff that will work for the area, for the directionality, whether it’s in shade or sunlight. So from the design phase, having that plan in mind is important, because you can’t just put green everywhere and expect it to be green forever.
I do think about that, Jason. Thankfully, BPL is supporting a weekly landscaper to come in. If the funding changes, who’s going to take care of it? It would rely on us — on me — to work with patrons who can come in and use it as an opportunity to take care of it. That would be its own program. This is what other library gardens do: they have to figure out a way to engage patrons to participate. I’m glad that with the Demonstration Gardens, we’re definitely going to have hands-on with patrons. But, so far, we’ll have the landscapers.
Our resources are strained. We have generous grants thanks to the Environmental Fund that are going to support us for years to come, so we can give rich programming. It’s not like we just have this beautiful building but we don’t have the resources to support it, because all of our libraries are really stretched thin. You think about how odd it is that this building came from money litigated because of what was done to the community, so it’s kind of perfect and bizarre at the same time, you know?
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.
An exploration of what it means to live in, build on, and design for a city of pervasive toxicity.