Public Architecture: Interview with Alexander Lamis, Architect AIA


Alexander Lamis, AIA, joined Robert A. M. Stern Architects, LLP in 1983 and has been a Partner since 1999. He leads the firm’s library practice, serving as Partner in charge of projects including public libraries in Nashville, Tennessee; Jacksonville, Miami Beach, and Clearwater, Florida; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Calabasas, California; Lakewood, Ohio; and Bangor, Maine.

Lamis’ other institutional projects are varied and include among others the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas, and the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park. He has substantial experience with programming, planning, and design for academic institutions, and he manages the firm’s interior design practice and its product design program.

An authority on library design, Lamis has been invited to speak on the evolving role of information technology in libraries at Computers in Libraries 2000, IOLS 2000, the National Library of Medicine, and the MIT Club of New York. He contributed a chapter on sustainable design in libraries to the book Planning the Modern Public Library Building (Libraries Unlimited, 2003) and the article “Evolving Spaces: An Architect’s Perspective on Libraries” in Volume 28 of Advances in Librarianship (Elsevier, 2004).  NOTE: The American Institute of Architects announced the election of Alexander P. Lamis to The College of Fellows on February 11, 2016.

NP: In his seminal philosophy of science work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn, wrote about the ‘Paradigm Shift’ that seems as relevant today as it did in the 1960’s. How would you describe the paradigm shift in libraries today?

Lamis: I think Kuhn’s idea of a paradigm shift is an important one and has resonance in libraries specifically and more generally in higher education.  Kuhn was talking about the emergence of a new world view—I think he used the example of Galileo and the emergence of modern science—and the severe struggles and dislocations that come about as that new world view takes hold.  To begin with there is an entrenched power structure that owes its power to the status quo, and will fight to keep a lid on change.  This works for a time, but eventually the new reality becomes so pervasive and well substantiated that it overwhelms the status quo. The dam breaks, so to speak, and washes all before it.  A characteristic of this shift according to Kuhn is once society swings toward the new paradigm it happens quickly and completely and a new social dynamic—a new power structure, if you will– is built around the new way of thinking.

NP: Given that context, where do you think libraries are now?

Lamis: I see libraries in the midst of this shift now. The pressure for change built up over at least two decades—and was of course fueled by the transformative changes in data storage, transfer, search, social media, and early stages of machine intelligence. The fact of the matter is when it comes to getting any sort of information, be it a ‘book’, a ‘record’ or a ‘video’, we can get it anywhere, any time—or nearly. So having a physical home for physical books, records, and videos, is a bit like when your i-phone takes a picture and you get that shutter clicking sound. Intellectually you know that there is no shutter but it is still comforting to know that an image has been taken.

As an architect of physical bricks and mortar libraries as you can imagine this is a troubling if not career-jeopardizing situation!

NP: So, what do you think should be done?

Lamis: First, libraries should be restructured around the services they offer, rather than the materials they store. There should be private learning environments, one-to-one tutoring spaces, spaces for groups, spaces for distant contacts and learning, spaces for larger community interactions—a lecture, a conference, an exhibit. Some spaces should be loud and extroverted, others quiet and thoughtful. Technological support for these spaces should be ubiquitous so any sort of information—a song, a speech, a sonnet, can be called up at will. Professionals and staff should be mediators, facilitators, subject specialists and people who can add value to the library users’ experience.

Second, every community needs a memory, and the library should be at its core. It is too easy to hit delete and lose track of what came before—whose shoulders we stand on. This archival function to me grows daily more critical.

Third, libraries should be the ‘safe place’ in a community where civilized debate can occur. One unhappy consequence of the explosion of options our digital world provides is fragmentation—one person can watch Fox and another can watch CNBC and we will eventually be living in two separate versions of the same community. We desperately need a place, physically and metaphorically to come together.

NP: How do you think the shift will continue to play out in terms of a library’s physical structure?

Lamis: As far as our library buildings go—I am not at all sure they are ‘right-sized’ for what we will need today and in the future. And the layout of existing buildings may not be conducive to the needs we will have. So our energy as architects and those who care deeply for libraries should be focused on re-creation, re-imagining this wonderful institution in a fundamental way. As Kuhn might say, that is not a radical but indeed only a logical conclusion to be drawn from events already in motion.