DALLAS — In the itty-bitty strip mall that backs up on the recently opened Vickery Park Branch Library in Dallas, you can shop for groceries and other sundry items at Burmese, Ethiopian and Mexican markets. That’s three continents in about 45 feet.
Vickery Meadow, as that spice-scented emporium attests, has become the heart of immigrant and refugee life in Dallas. It is a dense and diverse neighborhood, though its architecture, mostly nondescript apartment complexes in various stages of decline, doesn’t do much to reflect the character of the population.
That unfortunate condition gets a welcome aesthetic boost with the addition of the $6 million Vickery Park library, which transforms an empty lot into what, as the pandemic subsides, should become a vibrant cultural and educational hub.
“There are 56 languages spoken in the community, and I can’t even name 56 languages,” said the project’s architect, Robert Meckfessel, founding principal of Oak Cliff-based DSGN Associates. That linguistic diversity is quite literally incorporated into the building: the word “welcome” is etched into the glass windows fronting the entry in Amharic, Arabic, Burmese, Chin, English, French, Nepali, Spanish, Swahili and Tigrinya.
The main body of the library takes the shape of an ellipse, its curving forms, according to Meckfessel, responding to communal traffic patterns across the site, which links the converging streets of Park Lane and Ridgecrest Road. During holiday times, the empty lot now occupied by the library had been used for the community’s popular annual Festival of Light. To maintain that tradition, a large Lacebark Elm was imported from Arkansas — yet another neighborhood immigrant — and was planted in a landscaped area in front of the library, to act as a centerpiece for the event.
That area also includes a children’s play space with a climbing structure, an amenity requested by community members during public planning sessions for the building. Children are a priority for the library, which is directly across the street from the DISD’s Sam Tasby Middle and Jack Lowe Elementary schools.
There’s also more parking than necessary — 36 spaces, as required by city code — nevermind that it is along a bus route and in a neighborhood where not everyone drives. The landscape design is by Dallas-based Studio Outside.
The single-story building’s clean lines and cool material palette betray Meckfessel’s modernist sensibility. He is a longtime advocate for the preservation of midcentury architecture, both in Dallas and nationally. The original conception for the building was very much in that idiom: “It started as a glass box, but we needed more shelf space.” Hence the gray brick. A broad overhanging canopy wraps the exterior, providing shelter from the elements along the building’s edge, while keeping the sun at bay.
The facility aims at a high level of sustainability. It is designed to be 100 percent carbon neutral, with solar voltaic panels on the roof providing 33 percent of its power. A corner of the landscaped site, along Park Lane, is given over to a stormwater retention pond.
In modern tradition, the 18,000-square-foot facility is open in plan, offering librarians what Meckfessel calls “ultimate flexibility.” Utilities are run under a raised floor, with a comfortable, rubberized surface specified by library staff. It is a bright space, lit by broad windows that break the brick façade, and by a line of clerestory windows above.
Three drum-shaped pods (in red, blue and green respectively) of varying size float in the interior space, providing enclosed areas for classes (English as a second language is popular) and other meetings. The largest of the pods is subdivided into quirky wedges for small groups.
There is clever detail work as well: The book stacks have powder-coated metal end caps, essentially dry-erase whiteboards so librarians can easily re-classify a shelf when necessary. In the large children’s area, there are window boxes in bright red for cozy, sequestered reading.
A rectangular structure composed of tilt-up concrete panels, is clipped onto the rear of the elliptical library building; within it is a 90-seat meeting room, a flexible storage area and office space, the latter kept intentionally small to encourage staff to remain on the library floor.
The library’s most dramatic feature is the exposed steel tensile system that supports its metal roof deck. To keep the central area of the library column-free, Meckfessel and structural engineer Tom Taylor, of Datum Engineers, created a three-dimensional truss system, with a network of steel cables traversing the width of the 80-foot span.
“Tom doesn’t like doing things the easy way,” said Meckfessel, of Taylor, a revered figure in the Dallas architecture community.
The cables meet at suspended kingposts, clean-lined white steel cylinders that were a point of pride for Taylor.
The system was initially not intended to be exposed, but that changed when Meckfessel saw it being installed during construction. “We were not making any effort to make it architecturally attractive, because the concept was it would be covered with drywall,” Taylor said. “But I have an inborn opinion that if you come up with a really nice system to resolve structural issues, than it’s automatically architecturally pleasing.”
That is assuredly the case here, and it is especially appropriate in a library, a space dedicated to opening our eyes to things we might not ordinarily see. For that matter, giving the unseen a dignified presence seems just the right metaphor for a library in Vickery Meadow, a community that is often overlooked, but worthy of attention.
Its features now include a fine new work of modern design.