Come explore the early Collegiate Gothic roots of the university campus in the original quadrangles,…
Near the site of the world’s first human-made nuclear reaction stands a large glass bubble.
Was it mutated by the radioactive remnants long rumored to remain there? Probably not. Still, it's safe to say that the University of Chicago’s Mansueto Library looks like no other library. The unadorned oval glass dome encloses a light-filled reading and work area, and there's hardly a bookshelf in sight. Volumes are stored in an enormous repository below ground and tended entirely by machines.
Preserving the past, building for the future
Mansueto Library was born out of the university’s commitment to continue collecting physical publications and keep them available on campus rather than in offsite “dark storage.” But where to store them? The obvious place was next to the existing main library. The Regenstein, which is Brutalist in style, is just north of the university’s original main Gothic Revival quadrangle. However, giving up some of the last open space in the heart of campus wasn’t a popular option, at least not initially.
Enter architect Helmut Jahn. Jahn proposed storing the books underground, making the least possible intrusion on the remaining open space. A reading room at ground level could cap off the new library and provide a pleasant space for students to study. Based on this idea, the university selected Jahn to design the project in 2006.
Jahn’s project required architects and engineers to collaborate closely, using complex digital models to assist during the design process in order to ensure both technical and aesthetic success. The 55-foot-deep building was outfitted with an automated storage and retrieval system that could manage up to 3.5 million volumes. The domed reading room is 240 feet long, 120 feet wide, and 35 feet high and can accommodate 180 students, plus staff work areas.
The simple grid supporting the dome is an unornamented Modernist form, but not the rectilinear kind championed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The glass panes are not all clear. In upper sections, a white frit pattern blocks a significant amount of heat, light and damaging UV rays, maintaining a pleasant interior atmosphere. During the day, working students are afforded stunning views of the surrounding campus. At night, the glowing dome showcases the studious visitors to passersby. At all times of day, the building elevates the act of reading while celebrating the academic rigor for which the university is known.