Heatherwick Studio Designs a Lakefront Library for Columbia, Maryland

John Hill
2. April 2023
The planned five-story library with “climbable façade” steps down to a park on the edge of Lake Kittamaqundi. (Visualization: Heatherwick Studio)

Planned to open to the public in 2027, the new location of the Central Branch of the Howard County Library System is currently a surface parking lot within Columbia's Lakefront Core, one of five districts comprising the Downtown Columbia Plan. Adopted in 2010 and updated as recently as 2018, that master plan includes closing and eventually demolishing the library's nearby building, which dates from 1981 and had renovations as recently as 2016, and building a larger, 100,000-square-foot library just steps from Lake Kittamaqundi. HCLS asserts that its current home is not large enough for the existing population, that it cannot grow due to site constraints, and that new residential construction will increase Howard County’s population at least 15%, necessitating a considerably larger structure.

Columbia was famously planned in the 1960s by James Rouse, the developer who saw “cities as gardens for the growing of people.” (Visualization: Heatherwick Studio)

Even before Thomas Heatherwick got involved with the project, Howard County was envisioning something that in hindsight sounds very much aligned with his studio's ethos. The section of the master plan (as amended in 2016; PDF link) related to the library reads, in part: “This new library complex could move the Howard County Library in the direction of an ‘Experience Library,’ an intellectual, interactive learning center combining visual exhibitions with interesting architecture and typical library elements.” (emphasis not in original) 

A statement from Heatherwick Studio echoes the master plan: “Going beyond a simple repository of knowledge and book lending services, the new space will act as a center for the community and will become Columbia’s hub for events, learning, and lending of objects of use such as art or tools.”

Planted staircases weave across the facade. (Visualization: Heatherwick Studio)
“Columbia has always been driven by a socially radical vision. This legacy inspired us to evolve the traditional library beyond books and into a new type of community center for broader learning and social exchange. A walkable, planted building that emerges from the lakeside landscape will house an amphitheater for events, play areas and light filled rooms designed for working and learning anything from cooking to IT.”

Stuart Wood, partner at Heatherwick Studio

More than a repository of books, the two-story atrium at the center of the library will host events, with Kittamaqundi serving as a backdrop. (Visualization: Heatherwick Studio)

The vision of HCLS's Central Branch as a “community center” and place of “social exchange” is most pronounced in the two-story atrium in the middle of the library. Animated visualizations in the video below give the impression of a central commons: a place to sit down, read, watch a performance, or do any number of things. Yet, with the design's many stairs — in the atrium and on the facade — bringing to mind the lawsuits that followed the 2019 opening of Steven Holl's Hunters Point Library, it remains to be seen just how much Heatherwick Studio's design will change before it starts construction in late 2024. That target needs to be met so the $143 million library can open to the public in 2027 — sixty years after the planned community of Columbia first opened.

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