Public Architecture: Interview with Patrick Burke, Architect, AIA

Patrick Burke has been in practice for 50 years, since Gold Medalist Michael Graves founded the practice in Princeton, New Jersey in 1964. The firm’s hallmark is the integration of master planning, architecture, interior design, product design, graphic design and branding, as demonstrated in projects such as Resorts World Sentosa, a $4.4 billion integrated resort in Singapore for which Patrick Burke, AIA, was the lead designer.

Burke is a Principal and Studio Head who joined the firm in 1982 after receiving his architectural training at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Princeton University. Building on the firm’s longstanding commitment to humanism and its power to produce transformative results, Burke has undertaken numerous trend-setting projects for museums, theaters, libraries and other institutions that are cornerstones of their communities.

NP: I am interested in knowing how buildings are shaped and in turn shape us as a lead into a discussion about lighting and architecture, particularly in libraries.

Burke: When we design buildings – a library or any other type – we are creating places for people. We do not start the design process by creating a form and them forcing the functional components to fit it. We begin by studying how to organize the functional components so they work best for the site and the users. We want to create libraries that are comfortable and highly functional for the various ways people use them, whether visitors or staff. The collections, technology, services and spaces are of course the foundation of the library, but they do not come to life until people use them when they read, study, investigate, learn, work, meet, discuss, watch, listen…and enjoy.

Good lighting is essential to creating a successful library. Various spaces and tasks have different lighting needs. I personally think that allowing most spaces to have daylight –and views — where possible is very important. We have all been in dimly lit library spaces with no connection to daylight. Not only are they undesirable to occupy for long visits, but they also can make us feel uncomfortable and even unsafe. There’s considerable literature in healthcare and education about the positive effects of natural light on wellbeing and learning, and the same applies to libraries. That’s in part how we are shaped by our environment.

NP: What’s the history of lighting in libraries?

Burke: Libraries as centers of learning of course date back to ancient times. Until the recent explosion of audio-visual media, libraries acted primarily as repositories for various forms of the written word: clay tablets, parchment scrolls, medieval codices and illuminated manuscripts, and eventually mass-printed books, pamphlets and news. Because these media are visual, seeing them in natural or artificial light has always been essential. Think of a historic library in a monastery or university with carrels or bookshelves perpendicular to the outside wall and flanking a window. This arrangement creates a one-on-one relationship between the reader and the artifact, where imagination and knowledge are illuminated by light.

Over time, libraries, especially public libraries, became grander, more communal places that still catered to the individual but also embraced and represented a community. For example, in the mid 1800s, the French architect Henri Labrouste utilized the new engineering technique of iron structural arches in two great libraries he designed in Paris. The arched iron trusses eliminated the need for bulky repetitive columns, resulting in larger uninterrupted spaces. The grand reading rooms are filled with daylight as the space could now be more open. Daylight penetrates deep into the interior. The Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève utilizes clerestory windows on all sides and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France features ceilings composed as a series of interconnected domes with skylights in the center of each. Both reading rooms are filled with daylight. This must have been a revelation in libraries at the time!

In a library such as Gunnar Asplund’s Stockholm library, the large rotunda and its dome and clerestory windows above create ambient light that defines the reading room as a collective space, whereas more intimate human-scaled reading areas on the periphery cater to individuals. Thus, the configuration of the space and how it is lit create a variety of ways to experience a library on one’s own as well as part of a group.

NP: How has that changed with today’s technologies?

Burke: The advent of computers, tablets, smart phones and other digital technologies has been accompanied by a rapid expansion of media, especially audio-visual media. Even newspapers embed videos within text. Many of these devices are easier to read when light is not falling on the screens, which would lead to special considerations in local lighting. This used to be a consideration in areas of the library where fixed computer stations were located. However, portable personal devices are now being used everywhere and anytime. And social media interconnects everyone.

Today’s learning styles rely not only on the personal connection between an individual and information but also on the productive engagement of people with each other, whether planned get-togethers or chance encounters. Therefore, today’s libraries should encourage these interactions. Someone may drop in to a lecture at the library and stay for a discussion. Meeting over a common interest spurs new ideas and conversations. And the physical environment and its lighting should encourage how people use libraries now. As I said earlier, it’s the people who matter. They are still the center of attention whether or not the books are present at the same level as traditional libraries.

NP: How does that affect the design of the architecture and the lighting? How do today’s buildings shape our attitudes and emotions in addition to allowing us to get our work done?

Burke: First of all, when we design a building, we start with the plan, creating adjacencies of compatible uses and circulation where people move from place to place. We also naturally conceive of the building section, creating the volume of rooms and the strategy for introducing light – natural or artificial – as part of the composition. We shape our buildings both physically and with light. Light helps distinguish passage from rest, active from contemplative spaces, communal from personal space.

Part of the strategy then is to pair the lighting strategy with the use of various spaces. Some zones need to be well-lit to function, especially workrooms and places where people circulate. Others need modulated light to adjust from day to night and from reading a book to viewing the same material on a tablet. Some of these are simply pragmatic, but lighting also affects our perception that certain places are friendlier and more conducive to social interaction. Seating areas with softer light, for example, indicate comfort and connote a more personal or intimate scale.

NP: Does light and its varied amount and characteristics, quality and direction affect how we perceive not only our buildings but also ourselves?  

Burke: Yes. While we know that daylight and views are important — and that we do feel better in spaces illuminated with daylight — we also know that daylight entering a space needs to be appropriately controlled. Sunlight cannot be allowed to shine across a space and create an environment that is too bright, has too much contrast in illumination, and even glare and thermal discomfort. That is especially important today as many people do their work on a digital device with an illuminated screen. Too much daylight can make it difficult to view the screen.

Also, filling the library with “lots of daylight” is not necessarily the right answer for users. Finding the proper balance between having enough indirect daylight to allow one to read comfortably and not so much daylight that computer screens are harder to read clearly is one of the challenges for the design team today.

Daylight may be the most important illumination in the library, but artificial lighting is also necessary. As day evolves to night, the spaces that relied on daylight during the day must evolve in illumination to maintain the effectiveness of the work space. The function of each space will dictate the appropriate illumination. The same goes for the architectural space. The “grand reading room” is not the ideal space for everyone to read, study and work. Many people feel more comfortable in intimate spaces, but they are typically not so well illuminated. I think one of the challenges is to balance the appropriate daylight and artificial lighting to create great intimate workplaces. While energy conservation is important today we still need to be sure to illuminate all spaces, even spaces such as underground stacks, with a degree and tone of illumination that creates a feeling of wellbeing, comfort and safety.

There are many factors that must be considered in designing for a successful library, such as the functional relationships of the various library components, the types of functions and features to be included, the ease of use, the technology, the comfort of the furnishings, thermal comfort, views, etc. Lighting is one of the most essential factors that the design team must get right and it will determine how comfortable people will be using the library. Eventually, that affects our moods, our attitudes and how we value libraries as the positive institutions that we know them to be.