Munday Library

The tower of St. Edward’s University’s Old Main Building punctuates the south horizon of Austin’s skyline, a South Congress counterpoint to the Capitol dome on the north end of Congress Avenue. The well- respected private university has been a visible and involved presence in the city since it was chartered in 1885.

Old Main and Holy Cross Hall on the hilltop form the historic core of the campus. The palette of buff brick, cream limestone, and red metal roofs encompasses more-recent buildings of less distinctive character. But since 2001, ongoing master planning has been spearheaded by Sasaki Associates, encouraging a crop of interesting, progressive buildings. With such a long- standing and in-depth involvement with the university, it is perhaps fitting that Sasaki would design the new library, since its location and parti are well grounded in many ways in the campus framework.

On many campuses, the library is the focus of academic life, intellectually and also physically, but Scarborough Phillips Library certainly did not play this role. Built in 1954 by Valdez and Williams Architects and renovated in 1979 by Bernard Johnson, the old library was pushed out of sight down the hill to the west of the campus core, looking more like a parking garage or a bunker than a repository of learning. It did not even connect with campus pathways.

Clearly, the new Munday Library by Sasaki had much to overcome, not least of which was the reuse of the old bunker and its location. They renovated 25,539 sf of the existing building, demolished half of it, and embarked on 21,380 sf of new construction. The newly renovated library is now spatially and functionally connected to the campus core.

The addition was placed along the north side of the old building and contains one of the finest grand reading rooms of any Texas university. In plan and section, the scheme for the two-story library consists of the solid block of the old library on the south, which was gutted and re-planned with the stacks, study rooms, and service spaces, and a northern bar-building with classrooms and open study areas. These two relatively solid blocks are separated by the open volume of the two-story-high reading room. The entrance is placed in the corner, where the new building runs past the old building, creating a classic “compression and release” sequence.

This nave-like space — long, narrow, and tall — is striking , and should be iconic of a St. Edwards education for generations to come. Two

rows of exceedingly slender round steel columns modulate the space, giving the eye a measure to appreciate the 180-ft-long distance (40 ft wide, 31 ft high). The hall is flanked by a finely detailed open stair rising along one side, and across the hall, two rows of slender columns define an eccentric side aisle. 

Quality detailing and workmanship are evident throughout the building. Raised access floor systems eliminate unsightly overhead ducts and suspended ceilings. Power and data run under the floor are fully accessible for the frequent changes that are a fact of digital life.

The vertical fins that are a visual link between the old and new build- ings are not operable but are set at a fixed angle, calculated to block sun at the most intense times of the year. They contribute to energy efficiency: The architects note that the whole library uses 69 percent of the energy used by the old library building.

A close look at the campus site plan reveals that the reading room has been placed to turn an ambiguous corner of the campus into a dynamic crossroads. Inside and outside, it is a calm place for study and an active link pulling together this corner of campus. The choice of exterior materials also marks the library’s position on campus: While the core campus is clad in buff brick, other materials are added to buildings farther from the center. Munday Library is all concrete, eschewing any brick (the stucco on the old library was cleaned and painted warm gray to downplay its solidity).

Sasaki principal Bryan Irwin credits the profound success of this project to a committed client. The library has been an immediate success, with students in its nooks and open spaces at all hours, testifying to both a functional need met and a level of comfort sustained. Depending on your viewpoint (or generation), it may or may not be ironic that the signature space in the library contains no books: Computer monitors are mounted on the tables aligned with the long axis of the grand space.

Even so, this reviewer appreciates a work of architecture that makes its place in architectural history by learning from its predecessors, rather than mimicking them, and by finding modern purposes for very old spatial types.

Gerald Moorhead, FAIA, is a longtime contributor to TA. This is his 114th article. 

Published in the September/October 2014 issue of Texas Architect.