Public Architecture: Interview with Jeff Johnson, Architect, AIA

Public Architecture

McCarty Holsaple McCarty, Inc. (MHM) is a 50-year old architecture and interior design firm in Knoxville, Tennessee. The company has designed public libraries in most of the major cities in east Tennessee and southwest Virginia as well as the main library (John C. Hodges) for the University of Tennessee.  Jeff Johnson, AIA, has served as the principal or project manager on most of the firm’s library projects.

NP: Who and/or what inspires you in the field of architecture?

Johnson: At MHM, we are most inspired by solutions to the building program that accomplish multiple objectives, i.e. longevity, delight and clarity. Public buildings, especially public libraries, are multi-generational structures that need to be enduring and at the same time flexible. One of my favorite books on design is How Buildings Learn, What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand. Its premise is that good buildings need to be designed to be able to gracefully accept change because change they will. This is especially true for today’s library.

NP: Do you have signature elements of design that you like to apply to the design of library buildings?

Johnson: We think it is important for libraries to have a sense of place. For many persons, especially in smaller communities, the public library may be the most significant structure they routinely use. It should be a place of inspiration and warmth so we spend a lot of time on the design of the entrance and the main reading areas. We also look for a theme for the children’s areas that will connect the library to the community. In one city, the annual county fair was a major event. We brought some of those elements into the children’s section with carousel animals and tents. In another small town, we designed a branch library to reflect the form of the long-lost train depot as a nod to the history of the place. We also would not design a library that doesn’t have a space for community use. This is the best way to connect the library to the community and to increase its perceived value.

NP: What do you think at this time are the biggest challenges and/or trends in designing the sustainable library of tomorrow?  

Johnson: Primarily city or county governments fund public libraries. Often, the library lacks a champion on the commissions or boards. Many elected officials wrongly believe that “the internet” has taken the place of the public library. Obviously, computer access for many people is only possible at the public library, especially for any high-speed access needs like on-line courses, employment searches and IRS forms. The challenge is to create good environments for all types of media access while keeping the warmth of the “old” library full of books.