Maya Lin Unveils New Neilson Design

PHOTO courtesy of || On Oct. 14, architect Maya Lin revealed her design for the updated Neilson Library, which will be integrated with the surrounding campus.

PHOTO courtesy of || On Oct. 14, architect Maya Lin revealed her design for the updated Neilson Library, which will be integrated with the surrounding campus.


Jemma Stephenson ’20
Contributing Writer

Prolific architect Maya Lin, assisted by other female architects and landscapers, is redesigning Neilson Library. On Oct. 14, her plans were revealed to the college community and the greater public. Lin has a long history with Smith; her mother was a Smithie and Lin herself received an honorary degree. Due to this long history and her achievements as an architect, Lin was a natural choice for this project.

Lin had the goal of making Neilson a more integrated part of the campus, through design and purpose. She believes that Neilson is currently a wall severing the two lawns and, as a result, the student body. Neilson is now going quite a bit smaller.  Lin is removing all of the extensions that have been added to the structure since it was first opened. Some of the library will now be underground in order to make up some space. In place of the extensions, there will instead be what Lin calls “jewel boxes.” These “jewel boxes” will be ovular glass structures on the north and south sides of the library. The glass will utilize natural light and natural heat in order to make the library a far more sustainable building.

Nature will become an integral piece of the library. In the new design, the roof of Neilson will contain a roof top garden that will serve as a study space. In order to provide functionality through all seasons, the roof will also have a functioning fireplace. The rock garden outside will be eliminated in order to create an amphitheater, inspired by Swarthmore’s amphitheater that will serve as an outdoor classroom. The center of Neilson will house a grand, spiral staircase that will also have the function as a sundial in order to further incorporate nature into the library. The sun’s solar ecliptic was taken into account in the design of the library so that the arc of the sun will be reflected in the space.

Lin focused quite a bit on how her own personal aesthetic will be incorporated into the design. The jewel boxes, while ovular, are a hand-drawn shape, as opposed to a calculated design. Lin said that she is fascinated by how straight lines become curves. She wants the library to be symmetrical at first glance, but asymmetrical upon further inspection. She also wants a “dialogue between the old and new.” The old-style entrance to the library will be preserved, with the rest of the library being new. She is a modernist architect and that is heavily reflected in the design. It will be interesting to see how the very modern jewel boxes look in comparison to the traditional and “old” entranceway and rest of campus.

The north jewel box will be a social hub that is open all day and night. The social aspect was a part of the library that was emphasized quite a bit in the presentation. Lin seemed to push the idea of the library as a communal space more than anything else. She said that there will be private spaces spread throughout the library, but this raises the concern of noise traveling from loud areas to allegedly quiet areas.

Lin also wanted the moment of entry to the space to be a moment of community. She believes that once you enter the library, you should be able to see the entirety of the library. However, this “communal ideal” once again raises the concern of being able to find private areas. If someone went to the library in order to study in an area where they would not be disturbed, the idea that they could be easily found defeats the purpose. Lin wants the library to be communal, a beautiful idea, but one that could prove to be impractical.

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