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Acclaimed Designer Maya Lin and National Design Firm Shepley Bulfinch Chosen to Redesign Neilson Library

Black and white portrait of Maya Lin

Published April 8, 2015

Maya Lin—whose balance between art and architecture is evident in her very first project, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and throughout her three-decade career—and Shepley Bulfinch, a national design firm with an impressive portfolio of higher education projects, have been selected to partner on the re-imagining and redesign of Smith College’s Neilson Library.

The project, which will be Lin’s first college library and one of the most significant capital projects in Smith College’s history, is expected to break ground in 2017.

Smith College President Kathleen McCartney said that the Lin/Shepley Bulfinch team was chosen for the project after an international search. “Maya Lin’s celebrated work within the combined fields of architecture, art and landscape–coupled with Shepley Bulfinch’s extensive experience in creating 21st-century academic libraries–will create a new library that is not only functional but forward-looking,” McCartney said. “Maya Lin thinks of libraries as today’s temples–spaces for reflection, intellectual exploration, and discussion of ideas. I am confident that she and the design team will work in close partnership with the Smith community to create a library that will showcase our collections and enrich our community in ways we can only begin to imagine.”

Shepley Bulfinch brings valuable experience to the Neilson redesign, both through previous library designs (at Johns Hopkins, Duke and the University of Notre Dame, among others) and through the work that the firm has done since 2010 in planning for new Neilson. In the upcoming phases of the Smith project, Maya Lin Studio will lead development of an integrated design strategy that encompasses building and site, and Shepley Bulfinch will lead the programming effort, as well as overall project execution.

“I am honored,” said Lin, “to be chosen for this project. The architecture of a library for the 21st century is rich and complex, offering an opportunity to create not only a supremely functional building–one that encourages various methods of learning and research–but also a space that creates a wondrous experience, and a place that resonates with larger meaning. As a house of learning and of knowledge, the library must act as a space that helps knit together the community and the campus in a way that is respectful of the existing landscape, and yet talks to us of our new century.”

The natural environment has always been an important  source of inspiration for Lin, and the Neilson redesign will provide her with an opportunity to work within the context of one of the nation’s greatest landscape architects. Smith’s campus was designed as a botanic garden by Frederick Law Olmsted, perhaps best known for shaping Central Park. Because of Olmsted’s 1893 plan for Smith, Neilson Library holds pride of place on the campus, connecting the science quad with the arts and humanities quad. Over the years, various additions to Neilson have bisected the campus core, creating a divide between the two quadrangles. The Neilson redesign is intended, in part, to reinvigorate and restore the center of Smith’s campus.

A central distinction of Smith’s library is its wide-ranging collection of invaluable materials that contribute to an understanding of women in the world. Neilson Library houses some one million print and digital resources, as well as several archival collections—including the Smith College Archives, the Mortimer Rare Book Room, and the Sophia Smith Collection, one of the world’s largest and most important archives of women’s history. One key goal of the Neilson redesign is to create a space that preserves these invaluable historical records while also encouraging new, interdisciplinary  methods of learning and research.

“It has been a privilege to partner with Smith in early stages of planning for this project,” said Shepley Bulfinch President Carole Wedge. “We are delighted to have been chosen to work with Maya Lin on the next phases of a comprehensive design. We look forward to working with Maya Lin Studio and the Smith College community to create an unprecedented library that is uniquely suited to the culture of Smith College.”

The Smith library redesign is Lin’s first college library. Related projects in her portfolio include the Langston Hughes Library at the Children’s Defense Fund’s Haley Farm in Clinton, Tenn., as well as the Museum of Chinese in America in New York. She also is designing a new corporate campus for the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Cambridge, Mass.

Lin, who received an honorary degree from Smith in 1993, has a strong personal connection to the college. Her mother, Julia Chang Lin, graduated from Smith in 1951, after a dramatic emigration from Communist China two years earlier. “It would have meant the world to my mother to know that I am working on this project,” said Lin. “I wish she were still alive for this announcement. I know she would be so proud.”

About Neilson Library at Smith College

Built in 1909 and expanded in 1962 and in 1982, Neilson Library holds pride of place on the Smith College campus, sitting between the science quad and the arts and humanities quad.

The lawn between Neilson Library and Seelye Hall in 1910

Neilson Library in 1910

Named for Smith’s third president, William Allan Neilson, the building serves as the social sciences and humanities library and includes the library administration offices. Neilson also is home to several important archival collections—including the Smith College Archives, the Mortimer Rare Book Room, and the Sophia Smith Collection, one of the world’s largest and most important archives of women’s history.

Smith’s Library Redesign—The Vision

Previous renovations at Neilson Library have focused on accommodating Smith’s collections, which are among the strongest of any liberal arts college. The existing building can no longer contain the expected growth of those collections, nor respond to the new types of learning, research and scholarship in which Smith students and faculty are increasingly engaged.

Thus, the primary purpose of Smith’s library redesign is not to expand space for existing objects, but to think creatively and intentionally about what a forward-looking library should be, how it should function, and what scholarly and social goals it might serve.

In particular, Smith seeks to develop a library that will reflect and convey the nature of a Smith education, which is global in scope and based on learning across disciplines. Smith plans to create what President Kathleen McCartney has called a “library of the future.” Studies show that libraries remain critical curated spaces, but they are no longer simply boxes of books, as Sarah Thomas, vice president for the Harvard Library and a 1970 Smith graduate, has said. Rather, to appeal to a new generation of students, college libraries must be flexible and responsive, providing spaces that can be transformed at a moment’s notice to accommodate different needs. They must provide immediate and seamless access to information through state-of-the-art digital technology. And they must offer patrons open social spaces to gather with friends and study in groups.

The modern library, in Sarah Thomas’ words, “broadens the tent.” It is versatile and flexible. It includes books and digital resources. It provides space for  people and things.

This is the library that Smith seeks to create.

Maya Lin and Shepley Bulfinch plan to approach the Smith library redesign as a creative exploration and an active partnership with members of the Smith community. Lin plans to come to campus for open dialogues with students, faculty and staff; with committee members  the design team will visit other libraries to discuss Smith’s dreams for its new space. Lin has invited Smith’s architecture students to meet with the design team at various phases of the project.

Smith’s Library Redesign—Background

The renovation of Smith’s library is the largest capital project of this decade, and the first library renovation since 1982.

Smith’s library redesign began in 2010, when the college engaged Shepley Bulfinch to partner on a master plan for all of the college’s libraries. Soon after, the college worked with Shepley Bulfinch on several studies to assess what could feasibly be accomplished with current library space. In 2014, the trustees approved the concept of a redesign of Neilson and the hiring of an architect. There are two groups that have been leading the library initiative: the Library Architect Selection Committee, which is chaired by President Kathleen McCartney, and the Library Program Committee, which is charged with deciding what needs to be in the library. Both committees include students, faculty, staff and alumnae.

In the next phase of development, the library program committee will begin working with the architects to produce a comprehensive plan for refurbishing Neilson. In addition, the architects will lead a robust set of planning exercises that will involve all parts of the community that use the library. That process may include forums, meetings, design charrettes and surveys.

Construction for the project is scheduled to begin in 2017, and is likely to last at least two years.

About Maya Lin

Maya Lin’s acclaimed work encompasses large-scale environmental installations, intimate studio artworks, architectural works and memorials. She virtually redefined the idea of monument with her very first work, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and since then has gone on to pursue a remarkable career in both art and architecture, while still being committed to the exploration of time, memory, history and language in her memorials.

Her architectural projects include the new campus master plan (550,000 square feet of lab, office and retail space) and main building for Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Cambridge, Mass., and recent completed works include the Museum of Chinese in America (in New York City), the Riggio-Lunch Chapel and Langston Hughes Library for the Children’s Defense Fund, and a private residence in Colorado that was honored as one of Architectural Record’s Record Houses. Other past works include the Greyston Bakery (Yonkers, N.Y.), the Sculpture Center (Long Island City, N.Y.), the Aveda headquarters (New York, N.Y.) and an environmental learning lab at Manhattanville College.

Lin’s designs create a close dialogue between the landscape and built environment, and she is committed to advocating sustainable design solutions in all her works, civic and residential. Lin’s architectural works prioritize locally sourced materials, as well as innovative mechanical systems, to reduce energy consumption.

Lin’s artwork exudes a profound respect and love for the natural environment. Her interest in landscape has led to works influenced by topographies and geographic phenomena, finding inspiration from rock formations, ice floes, water patterns, solar eclipses and aerial views of the earth. Lin’s work asks the viewer to reconsider nature and the environment at a time when it is crucial to do so.

A committed environmentalist, Lin is working on her last memorial, What is Missing? The project proposes that we look at a memorial not as a singular static object, but as a work that can exist in multiple forms and at multiple sites simultaneously. These works raise awareness about species and habitat loss, and will give people both immediate and long-term solutions to the current crisis surrounding biodiversity loss and the overarching threat of climate change.

Lin’s work has been in solo and group shows throughout the United States and abroad, most recently completing new work for exhibitions at the Parrish Art Museum in New York and the Ivory Press Space in Spain.

Maya Lin has been profiled in Time magazine, the New Yorker, The New York Times, Smithsonianand Art in America, among others. The 1996 documentary about her work, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. In 2009, Lin was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama, and in 2014 she was awarded the Department of State Medal of Arts. In that same year she was honored with the prestigious Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.

About Julia Chang Lin, Class of 1951

Maya Lin’s mother, Julia Chang Lin, led an extraordinary life.

Born in Shanghai in 1928, she grew up in a small coastal town in South China, attended private schools, and in 1947 enrolled at St. John’s University in Shanghai.

In May 1949, on the same day that the Communists marched into Shanghai, Lin received a telegram from Smith, notifying her that she’d been accepted as a transfer student and awarding her a $1,000 scholarship. The family housekeeper, Liu Ma, sewed the telegram and two $10 bills into the collars of Lin’s Chinese dress. As the Nationalist government bombed the coast, Lin was smuggled to the United States on a fishing boat with her best friend. Detained for weeks on an island held by the Nationalists, Lin arrived at Smith one month after the semester had started, in October 1949.

After graduating from Smith and earning graduate degrees from the University of Washington, Julia Chang Lin taught for nearly 30 years in the English Department at Ohio University, where she also helped establish the university’s Chinese language courses. The author of four books, she was influential in bringing generations of Chinese women poets to a western audience.  In 1999, Lin was one of 29 “remarkable women” honored by Smith for “achievements representing the accomplishments of generations of Smith alumnae.”

Julia Chang Lin died of cancer in New York in 2013, at age 85. At the time of her death, she was writing an autobiography.