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Knoxville library features Asian twist

| Sunday, May 17, 2009

At first glance, the Knoxville branch of the Carnegie Library may look like a Japanese hut in the middle of a mish-mash of urban sprawl. Or worse, like two former Pizza Hut's squashed together, without the red paint that makes the franchise's buildings iconic.

If the architect who designed the building were still alive, he would have preferred the former description rather than the latter. That's because the designer, Paul Schweikher (1903-1997), was heavily influenced by Japanese architecture, art and design.

Schweikher was head of the Department of Architecture at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) from 1958 to 1969. Before coming to Pittsburgh, he had a successful career as an architect in Chicago and had served as chairman of the School of Architecture at Yale University.

In Pittsburgh, Schweikher worked on a number of small projects, including a house in Fox Chapel. But he also designed a few other city landmarks, including the Student Union Building at Duquesne University (1967) and the WQED-WQEX building in Oakland (1970).

The Knoxville branch of the Carnegie Library was built in 1965 at a cost of $195,200. At a total usable capacity of just under 5,000 square feet, the library was designed to hold 45,000 books with an open shelf capacity for 35,000 volumes and storage capacity for 10,000.

Prior to 1911, all Carnegie library branches were built with funds provided by Andrew Carnegie himself. From then on, no new Carnegie library buildings were erected in the city until this project was begun in 1964, when federal funding for libraries became available.

For the most part, the building has remained unchanged since it was built, says branch manager Carlton Stout.

"We've added carpet. We've added the blinds. Lighting has been a concern, so that has all been retrofitted. But, for the most part, it hasn't changed," Stout says.

Schweikher's design brought fresh vision to the neighborhood in more ways than one. Not only was the Japanese-inspired design unique to the area and the city at large, several site and environmental problems were solved through creative design and successful use of concrete-block walls, exposed concrete columns and beams, and terneplate -- thin iron sheets coated with an alloy of lead and tin -- on the roofs and hoods (the top caps on the roof that provide indents for windows) that make the twin roofs distinctive.

Schweikher's Asian influences also are evident in his restrained use of materials, which accounts for a great deal of the buildings rock-like presence. On the outside, various shades of gray predominant from the walls, columns and beams.

The same concrete block is on the inside as well, and the roof is supported by precast concrete double-tees designed to mimic the fluted shape of the terneplate roofing.

Schweikher was adamant that, given the hustle and bustle of the neighborhood that surrounds it, the interior of the library offer the visitor a "quiet zone."

Much of the library furniture is original, though many pieces have been re-upholstered. Even a small lunch room and a large living room in the basement still have the original kitchenette, which combines sink and stove in one unit, and chairs by Herman Miller.

The building originally supported florescent and incandescent lighting in addition to the natural light that flows into the space from the two forward facing banks of skylights wedged in the hoods above. The heating system is a combination of forced air and hot-water radiant heat. A large stack that functions as a freestanding chimney located on the southern side of the building alludes, once again, to Japanese design.

Schweikher once said, "Japanese architecture influenced my work probably in too many ways to list but certainly, first of all, in the relationship of the house or home to the out of doors and to the land: a casual, easy refinement of indoor living with very little loss of the advantages of sunlight, winds, breezes, growing things."

You wouldn't know it from accessing the structure today, but the entrances were designed with two separate visitors in mind -- one for adults and one for children.

Reading areas occupy the high central portion of the building under the hoods. Again, one for children and one for adults. Towering walls above the reading areas create an air of spaciousness.

At the time the building opened, Architectural Forum described it as "class amid the clutter" in regard to the surrounding business district. The article praised the unpretentiousness of the structure and called it "the most successful small-scale urban design that Pittsburgh has seen in a long time."

In many ways, the description still holds true. Schweikher's little library is indeed a gem of architectural design in our midst.

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