COMMENTARY: The New Library: an alternative approach

The Roseau Public Library, originally called the Carnegie Library, was opened somewhere in 1906/1907

Plans for a new library have changed radically since the SHAPE press release three weeks ago. The MMC design now appears to have been put on hold, together with the idea of ​​incorporating a dance floor and recording studio within a new library building. There is nothing wrong with going back to the drawing board. Indeed, it’s a commendable step towards getting it right. However, what we are now faced with is a hastily conceived design competition.

All of the discussions to date have put the cart before the horse. As I have previously stated, there are two separate and distinct issues involved: the preservation of an important historical building and the pressing need for a new purpose-built library. The restoration of the Carnegie Library should not be compromised by planting a new library within its grounds. A more suitable location for the new library can be found within Roseau’s city center.

If you walk the streets of Roseau, you will realize that many areas of the city are in urgent need of sympathetic development. For Dominicans overseas, a glance at the google satellite image of Roseau will confirm what I say. Furthermore, there exists a building that could be readily converted into a modern library. But first and foremost, we urgently need a comprehensive development plan for the city. Such a plan would protect buildings of historical worth, encourage regeneration and guard against the piecemeal development that is blighting Roseau’s townscape. Such a plan is surely one of the fundamental functions of Physical Planning.

When the option of an alternative site for a new library has been explored, the idea of ​​a design competition can be revisited. However, a competition is not the best way of arriving at a good design, either for the commissioners or the competitors. All but one of the competitors has to work for free; only the winner gets the prize money. And even that is not guaranteed, for the commissioners may decide that none of the submissions meet their approval. To better their chances, competitors tend to play safe and produce what they perceive the commissioners want. Ultimately, design competitions stifle creativity.

Having said that, a revised concept brief should take into account Dominican architects practicing with distinction overseas and Dominican students presently at university studying for a degree in architecture. Also, the qualifications required for entry should also be reconsidered. Many of the world’s most talented architects, had they been born here and lived here, would not be eligible as they have had no formal training. Frank Lloyd Wright, the esteemed American architect, is a prime example. At its best, architecture is 75% art and 25% structural engineering.

As with museums and art galleries, the design of libraries calls for expert knowledge that goes beyond building four walls. Specialists need to be consulted and their recommendations taken on board.

It is unfortunate that the structure of the historic Carnegie Library was left unprotected after the hurricane and that the building has never been granted protected status. I hope that a restored Carnegie Library – in its original setting – and an exemplary new library in the city center, will be our legacy for future generations.

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