Lending a Library
By Joan Wickersham
The project: A collaboration between a team of students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and several community groups to design and build a temporary storefront branch library in Boston’s Chinatown. The neighborhood has been without a library since 1956, when the local branch was torn down to accommodate a proposed Central Artery route that was later changed.
The idea: Give the community a taste of the services and focal point a library would provide — and begin to create the desire, support, and momentum that could lead to a permanent branch library.
Chinatown Storefront Library, DMU’s latest project in collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s student-designer and Boston Street Lab.
The workplace: A group of four desks on the otherwise mostly deserted top floor of the GSD. Already, at 10 o’clock on a summer morning, the place is sweltering; the days of heedless air conditioning are long gone. In the middle of the desks is a large chipboard model of one of the library’s undulating shelving units. Next to it is a smaller model representing the entire space. All the design elements are modular, so they can be dismantled and reused when the installation closes.
10:05 Marrikka Trotter, the team leader, who recently earned a master’s degree in design studies from Harvard, talks with student Matt Swaidan about generating a workflow chart to track the remaining fabrication and the installation of the project elements. She mentions she’ll be away for a few days at the end of next month, returning on the 27th.
“My birthday,” Matt says.
“You’re getting old, man.”
“Yeah, I’ve doubled my gray hairs this year.”
“I’ve got some real streaks now. It was my thesis that did it.”
10:10 Jungmin Nam, another student, arrives, and Marrikka draws him into the flow-chart discussion. The schedule is tight. As fall approaches, the team will lose access to the workspace and equipment in the GSD. People have out-of-town commitments. There’s been a delay in obtaining construction materials — a promised early donation turned out to be smaller than expected, and finding another donor took time. Figuring out how to cut MDF, a kind of fiberboard, for stable shelving units has also been tricky.
10:20 Discussion of whether to try cutting Lumasite acrylic panels for display units with the drill bit they already have, or take time to order a bit specifically tested for this material. Jungmin asks Marrikka to explain the decision to use Lumasite. “I thought we were going with polypropylene.”
“There were life-safety issues. If polypropylene ignites, the fumes can close off people’s lungs in seconds. So we have to use Lumasite, which is safe.” She smiles. “And much nicer.”
10:40 Matt, who has carpentry experience, recommends they wait for the right equipment to cut the Lumasite. A slight delay is better than the risk of blowing a drill bit. He goes to order the piece, while Marrikka and Jungmin talk about lighting. She’s concerned about the brightness of the overhead fluorescents. “We’ll have to take out some bulbs.”
“I like a bright library,” he says.
“But this isn’t going to be warm and glowy, it’s going to be cold and glowy. Though it will help that everything else is in a warm palette.”
10:47 Thinking ahead to the installation schedule, involving the design team as well as other student volunteers, Marrikka and Jungmin look at a computer rendering of the sinuous curving ceiling sculpture. She points. “For this piece, we’ll need people who really know the design and what they’re doing. But this” — pointing at another piece of the design — “just needs hands. Brute labor.”
She asks him to get a sample of steel wire to suspend the sculpture from, so they can test it for strength. “Also, maybe you could make a model of the whole thing.”
String, for the model? They decide on fishing line.
11:02 “Casters,” Marrikka says. A GSD professor critiqued the design last week, and pointed out that the MDF shelving and seating units would be heavy; casters would prevent them from sinking into the carpet tile. Marrikka and Jungmin look at an online catalog, comparing mechanisms and bearing capacities of various casters.
11:17 They choose one, noting that it will raise the heights of seating units by 40 millimeters — a change that, to achieve ADA compliance, will require a comparable change in the height of the work surfaces.
11:20 Casters that lock versus casters that don’t.
12:30 Marrikka explains the schedule to Shelby Doyle, a new member of the team, who has just stopped by. Shelby is tied up right now with research and the production of a student handbook, but she can put in more time at the beginning of next month.
“It would be especially good if you could help with upholstery,” Marrikka says. She lowers her voice. “The boys are scared of fabric.”
1:15 Downstairs, in the basement wood shop, Matt has spent the past hour on the computer, using a program called Rhino to lay out a new router cutting diagram for the MDF sheets, based on last week’s prototypes. He’s made minuscule adjustments to the cutting allowances for grooved tabs that will hold the shelves together — .020″ was too jiggly and compromised the stability of the units, but .018″ was too tight and would have made insertion almost impossible, especially given the propensity of the material to swell. As a carpenter, Matt was happy if he could achieve tolerances of 1/64″, so working with these infinitesimal thousandths is new and fascinating to him, as is working with the computer-controlled CNC router. He transfers his Rhino diagram to the MasterCam program, which interfaces with the router.
1:20 Matt turns on the router, programmed to channel out shelf grooves to accommodate the Lumasite panels. Behind the glass wall, the router begins to roar and wave its tentacles over the MDF sheet lying on the table.
1:27 The grooves are done. Matt changes the drill bit for a thicker one, and the router begins cutting the curved outlines of the shelving units.
1:49 Back upstairs, team member Trevor Patt is showing Marrikka a computer diagram for Inspectional Services, depicting the spatial relationships between the curved ceiling sculpture and the lighting fixtures. “I think that’s just the right level of detail,” she tells him.
2:18 A rep from the carpet company stops by. The students love a pearl-gray carpet tile with a subtly ridged texture; they’d lay it in a basket-weave pattern inspired by the pebble paving at the Chinese house at the Peabody Essex Museum. The carpet company is willing to give them a great deal, but the students still need to find a donor to cover the cost. The other option is to accept a carpet installer’s offer to donate miscellaneous leftover tiles in assorted colors: free but ugly. Marrikka asks the rep about lead time for ordering. The answer: Five days. Marrikka: “So we don’t have to decide this week. We can let it play out.”
2:25 Shelby stops by again. She has 15 minutes — is there anything she can do? Yes: a handwritten thank-you note. Marrikka hands her an envelope and the address of a plastering company that has donated to the project.
2:39 Jungmin has talked to a wire company in Brockton. He’s thinking of going there now to look at samples.
Marrikka explains that Brockton is pretty far away. “We’ll figure out how to get you there another day. For now, I’d just start the mockup.”
Jungmin says there is a certain wire he thinks would be best, but there’s another one that might work too —
“We’ll get all those samples when we get you to Brockton. But for now, let’s do the mockup.”
2:50 A student named Damon who has not been involved with the project is standing by Trevor’s desk, intrigued by the diagram of the ceiling sculpture, which will be made of curved Lumasite panels suspended from wire. “Why wire?” Damon asks. “What if there was something more like a sheet-metal clip?”
“What what?” Marrikka asks, overhearing.
He sketches on a piece of paper.
“What about the weight of the clips?” she asks. “And how do you maintain the curve?”
3:12 After a discussion — Marrikka advocating for wire, and Trevor and Damon paring down and refining the clip idea — Trevor picks up an X-acto knife and cuts a quick paper model of the clip.
“Oh, that’s beautiful,” they all say.
Marrikka: “But why can’t we do the same thing with wire?”
Trevor: “I just don’t like wire.”
Marrikka: “This is irrational. What has wire ever done to you?”
3:28 Discussion of how sharp the edges of the clips will be after they are waterjetted. Marrikka is concerned about the safety of the installers. “And we should figure out how much sheet metal we’ll need. Is there a piece of metal downstairs we could use for testing?”
3:30 Marrikka asks Trevor if he’s had lunch. He hasn’t. She has to suggest several times that he go; he’s still thinking about the clip.
3:50 Matt comes back upstairs. The MDF prototype broke; several design details are clashing and weakening the piece. He’ll rework the tongue-and-groove joint and will run a new test piece tomorrow. They pore over the schedule again.
4:29 Marrikka reminds Trevor, who is sitting at his desk finishing a sandwich, that they need to finish the Inspectional Services diagram by the end of the day.
“But it’s lunchtime,” he says.
4:35 Trevor asks Marrikka if she’s checked her e-mail in the last two minutes.
“It’s Damon. He says he can’t get our Lumasite things out of his head and he’s drawn up a new detail and put it on CAD.”
4:41 “It’s 4:41,” Marrikka murmurs to herself. She turns to Matt, who has just come back to his desk. “What can you do for 20 minutes?”
“I’ll figure something out.”
Joan Wickersham’s memoir The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order was a 2008 National Book Award finalist.