Sneak peek: An early tour of Austin’s new Central Library

Downtown Austin gains a completely new gathering spot


The new Central Library, previewed before its grand opening Saturday, is one of those special Austin places.

In many ways, the new Central Library echoes Austin City Hall, but executed on a much more ambitious scale.

During the past 20 or so years, Austin has built many buildings, but few places of consequence.

The new Austin Central Library is a place of consequence.

In many ways, it echoes Austin City Hall, also on West Cesar Chavez Street, but executed on a much more ambitious scale. It carries over the older building’s hued limestone and metal overhangs. But whereas architect Antoine Predock’s City Hall — considered edgy when it was completed in 2004 — stretches to mimic the area’s natural surroundings, the Lake Flato and Shepley Bullfinch team’s library absorbs its environment’s lessons and takes them to unheralded heights.

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The floor surfaces in the 198,000-square-foot, multi-angled structure are made of cut mesquite blocks, so hard a material that it once was used to pave streets in San Antonio. The vast windows and interior surfaces transmit huge volumes of natural light, while perforated metal sunscreens, sometimes rendered as screen porches, sometimes as literary quotations punched through the metal, protect the airy six floors of the library from heat and glare.

The city’s animal life comes to the fore in multiple bird references, including a multistory Grackle Clock. Plant life is abundantly represented in the rooftop garden, so chic that it begs for a cocktail bar. (“We’ll have coffee and some pastries,” said a library spokeswoman.) Austin’s man-made past can be found in the valves and other mechanical devices salvaged from the old Seaholm Power Plant.

The building’s atrium, with its Harry Potter-style staircases poking out in odd directions, can feel disorienting at first. And if one is prone to vertigo, still so after a first encounter.

Yet the minute one steps off the stairs or out of the easily located elevators, the pathways become obvious. The east-west paths lead either to the clearly visible western hills or to the towers of downtown; the wider north-south passageway points to Lady Bird Lake in one direction and to the other mushrooming wonders of the Seaholm District, including the Independent, aka “the Jenga Tower,” in the other.

By design, the library offers a lot of technological gadgets, including a laptop vending machine, but books cover acres and acres of shelves with space to spare. One can even detect that dusty old-book smell amid all the new furniture and decor.

Special teen and children’s sections are joined by hushed reading rooms and a novel display area for local collections of music, art, books and film. In what will inevitably become a kid magnet, the wavy walls of the children’s area are fitted with padded child-sized portholes.

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Ahead of the library’s Saturday grand opening, a tour with architect David Lake, Austin Public Library Foundation director Tim Staley and Toni Lambert, the library system’s assistant director for public services, revealed scores of places to lounge, chat, meet or gather. Yet every effort was made to cut down on audio reverberations through the liberal use of acoustic material.

Although the cafe, to be run by the Elm Restaurant Group, won’t be open in time for the first public events, it is rightly oriented to the nascent pedestrian district to the north and near the Recycled Reads Boutique. The amphitheater for cooking demonstrations opens up to the spacious, curvy terraces above a Shoal Creek canyon that never looked more inviting.

Again, it is the place that matters as much as the activities. An events room that can hold more than 600 standing guests — perhaps 400 for a seated dinner — will go to the top of any event planner’s list for film, literary, arts or other gatherings. Parking is available below deck, not just for cars, but also separately for bikes, for which the library has hired a “bike concierge” on the Shoal Creek trail for cycling needs.

The foundation helped provide elements and programs not covered by the $125 million project, which ended $5 million over its original budget projection, and for which $90 million was raised through public bonds. The group will hold a gala at the library on Friday, the day before the general public is invited to explore all its nooks and crannies.

Libraries welcome all. There is enough elbowroom for a city of almost 1 million potential library-card holders, and for the newcomers expected in the upcoming decades.

How it will actually be used cannot be determined in advance, but from the start, this library will change the dynamics of downtown, located as it is at the terminus of an extended West Second Street and its new pedestrian-friendly bridge on one side, facing the still-promising Seaholm lawn on another, and connected to the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail across West Cesar Chavez Street by two new stoplights.

It joins a short list of civic game-changers — such as the City Terrace at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, the Whole Foods Market complex, ACL Live, the Emma Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center plaza, the Boardwalk Trail between East and West Austin, the Barbara Jordan Terminal at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, parts of the Domain and Mueller developments, the growing museum district north of the Capitol, and the area around the University of Texas Dell Medical School — as a completely new, immediately welcoming gathering place.

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