Reimagining the challenging Brutalist Roxbury Branch Library to engage and welcome Nubian Square residents required bold, thoughtful, and respectful interventions.
The Roxbury Branch of the Boston Public Library is located in Nubian Square (formerly Dudley Square) in the heart of Boston’s historic Black community. Designed in 1978 by Kallman and McKinnell Architects, the same architects who designed Boston’s famous City Hall, the Brutalist building was conceived as an introvert, a respite from the city outside. Concrete and glass block walls insulated the library from the neighborhood and a low-visibility entrance away from the bustling Square reinforced the isolation of the building and its users from the city around it. Though the library’s services were appreciated, the original design no longer met the needs of its users and today’s desire for library spaces to welcome the community rather than provide a haven from it. In 2019, to reflect the central role of the Roxbury Branch Library to its neighborhood, the name was changed from Dudley, as was Dudley Square, because residents felt the name honored Thomas Dudley, the colonial Governor of Massachusetts when slavery was legally sanctioned.
While the Brutalist style remains a challenge for many, its design elements represent a distinct moment in the nation and in architectural evolution, and there is a growing appreciation for this period of design with a desire to adjust deficits rather than reject these buildings out of hand. After thorough analysis and discussion with residents, the best course of action was determined to be a renovation of the building to create more light and warmth in the space, better access and visibility to the outside community, and modern amenities for a community hub. Glass block were replaced with expanses of clear glass, the front door was relocated to face Nubian Square with a new entry canopy and reading garden, and new program spaces were added such as a nutrition lab, learning lab, and meeting room. What was once a concrete bunker is now a light-filled, welcoming home for learning, convening, and community building.
“The successful transformation of the Roxbury Branch Library from a challenging, unwelcoming, and tired Brutalist building into a welcoming hub for Nubian Square demonstrates a sensitive approach and level of craft that few buildings of this vintage receive,” says Greg Galer, Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance. ”Informed by extensive community engagement balanced with recognition of the value of the original design, the team has given the library a new lease on life and provided a new perspective and appreciation to the fact that this style can evolve to meet today’s needs. Kallman and McKinnel would be proud to see their work transformed to match the evolving neighborhood — welcoming change rather than demolition.”
City of Boston, Public Facilities Department
Boston Public Library
CTA Construction Managers
Anton Grassl Architectural Photography
Building, Fire, & Access, Inc.
Kalin Associates, Inc.
Samiotes Consultants, Inc.
Simpson Gumpertz & Heger
Smith & Wessel Associates, Inc.
Sladen Feinstein Integrated Lighting