UofC's futuristic new Mansueto Library is definitely one for the books

May 20, 2011

The wraps came off the University of Chicago's $81 million Joe and Rika Mansueto Library earlier this week.  There is no other way to describe it: the Mansueto is a kick-ass piece of architecture and engineering.

From the exterior, the building is an elliptical glass mound that rises up from the lawn west of the Brutalist, square-jawed Regenstein Library, a 1970 work by SOM design partner Walter Netsch that is linked to the new structure by a glass corridor. Beneath the glass dome is a spectacular, 180-seat reading room that is one of the most breathtaking interior spaces in the city: a soaring, airy space that ennobles the disciplines of study and research.

"I walk in here and to me the sky is the limit," said Judith Nadler, the library's director and one of the university's driving forces behind the project. "The feeling in here is that you can do everything. For a students, it gives a sense of empowerment."

The northern end of the dome features a 6,000 sq ft preservation department, where staffers and experts use a mix of old and new technologies to conserve and digitize oft-fragile books, maps, papers and other items. These duties has been housed in the Regenstein, but in utilitarian spaces. "We're [now] the first time in a sexy space," said Preservation Librarian Sherry Byrne.

But the building's real marvel is the one most people won't see. Beneath the new library's main floor is basement five stories deep that can hold 3.5 million books, periodicals or what have you. When any of these items is requested by a patron, a computer-linked mechanical retrieval system of massive shelves and speedy 50-ft tall automated cranes flies into action, fetching the specific item from the basement and delivering it to the reference desk upstairs via elevator within five minutes. The thing must be seen to be believed:

The library is the work of Helmut Jahn whose chiller plant on the university's South Campus racked up awards after its completion in 2008.  With Jahn's guidance, what began as an idea to build a simple underground facility to house the book retrieval system, evolved into the present building, university officials said. The library is named for Morningstar CEO Joe Mansueto and his wife, U of C alums who contributed $25 million toward the building's construction.

And now, a look around, starting with the reading room:

A window washer has his hands full cleaning one of the 691 panes of glass that compose the three-story tall dome:

Here are staffers at work in the conservation laboratory in the Mansueto's preservation department. The windows overlook Ellis Avenue:

The entrance to the Mansueto from the Regenstein. The new circular connection that leads to a glass hallway into the Mansueto is "like a handshake' between the two buildings, Nadler said.

And lastly, a view of the Mansueto from the north, as seen from inside the famed Henry Moore 1967 bronze Nuclear Energy.