Visitors to the new Austin Central Library checked out 6,028 items on opening day alone in October. But more than its literary offerings, the library, which was a decade in the making, has garnered a lot of attention for its design: crisscrossing staircases, a large red grackle sculpture and a roof garden.
Oh, and "death-doors."
If you stand in the lobby of the new library and look up to the sixth floor, where the roof deck is, you'll see two glass doors in the wall – one in the corner, the other in the middle of the wall. If you were to open the doors and walk through them, you would fall two floors.
Austin resident Katherine Hoffman noticed the doors on her first visit to the library.
“I saw the door and I saw a little girl reach her hand up to the doorknob and pull on it,” she said. “And I had this moment of panic. I mean, obviously, they wouldn’t make a door that someone could fall out of, but it was a little scary.”
So Hoffman and another Austin resident, Monty Marion, asked about the doors for our ATXplained project:
“What’s the deal with the door to nowhere on the top floor of the new central library?” Hoffman wrote.
“What is the purpose of the doors to, apparently, nowhere at the top of the atrium in the new central library?” Marion asked.
Each had a theory. Marion asked a family member.
“My dad actually works in construction and I ran through stuff with him,” he said. “Maybe it was a spot to winch up furniture, but there’s no obvious stuff to anchor stuff on the ceiling.”
Hoffman’s theories were a bit stranger.
“My main theory is that it’s some kind of mistake,” she said. “Somebody accidentally had already ordered that glass and they just were kinda like, 'Well, we’ll just deal with it.'”
But then, she said, she looked at the crisscrossing staircases, which remind her of the moving staircases in Harry Potter.
“Perhaps it’s sort of a 9 and 3/4-type situation where us Muggles can’t get through,” said Hoffman, referring to how wizards in J.K Rowling’s series access the train to Hogwarts by running through a wall between the train platforms 9 and 10 at King’s Cross station in London.
“Maybe there are others who may be able to get [through the doors] to a wizard section up there,” she said.
But no. The doors are simply for maintenance.
“So that we can get our window cleaners through that door and suspend them and lower them down, so that they can clean the windows below them for the next five floors,” said John Gillum, facilities process manager for the Austin Public Library.
Gillum said that window washers can be strapped to hooks near the two doors and lower themselves down to either clean the interior or exterior of the large windows beside and below them. They also provide access to the high ceiling of the library’s atrium.
“If we wanted to hang banners or something like that – anything that we need to do to the inside of the building along that wall – that’s going to be a real handy access point,” he said.
“All little kids ask me about those doors,” Gillum said. “I explain maintenance to them, because that’s something they need to know because most of life is maintenance. They don’t know that yet, but they will.”
But the doors began as windows, and they began with form, rather than function, in mind.
“The connections in this library that we tried to create with all of the levels and all of the stairs and all of the bridges should continue to the roof deck,” said Sid Bowen, managing principal of Shepley Bulfinch, an architecture firm with offices in Phoenix, Boston and Houston. Shepley Bulfinch worked with the local firm Lake Flato on the library.
Bowen said that the driving idea behind the library’s atrium is that these civic buildings are about "serendipitous" discovery – especially with other people, rather than books. Surveys done by the Pew Research Center find that while people still use libraries for traditional purposes – 64 percent visit to borrow a book in print –more and more people think of public libraries as places to go to hear lectures or take classes.
The architects wanted to replicate this idea of knowledge being shared person-to-person, rather than book-to-person. So, they put in staircases that wind through the air, bridges made of transparent material and plenty of windows.
“It sort of drives you to look different ways. 'Wow, where am I?’ And you’ll find your friends on another level or another side of the atrium,” Bowen said. “We really were trying very hard in Austin to create an environment where you could go and connect with other people, and have conversations [about literature] ... or ideas that you came with, but to create a venue for that kind of intersection of ideas.”
The doors to nowhere – or the death-doors – were initially envisioned as windows to allow those on the roof garden to see into the library. But, Bowen said, the city was concerned about how they would wash those windows, since they were up so high.
“They insisted those pieces of glass be operable,” he said, “so that they can be opened by the person with the key and the glass cleaned.”
The additional uses – that they could use them as access points to hang banners from the ceiling – turned out to be added bonuses.
The fact that the doors are so visible is what makes them so unusual, said David Polkinghorn, who works with the Austin firm Jackson Galloway Architects. He said he usually puts access doors in the closets of buildings he designs.
“I think there’s always a use for gaining access to parts of your building,” he said. “This door is just a highly visible door, so I think that’s what makes it unique.”
Gillum calls the doors the "doors of perception," referring to the title of an Aldous Huxley book about his experience after taking hallucinogens.
“I’m not recommending that anybody do that,” he said.
Gillum's point is that the doors are in such strange places that it's as if they could lead to alternate realities. In a library, where book lovers claim stories have the same effect, this seems appropriate.
Larsen Krell, 11, said if she walked through one of the doors, it would lead to ancient Greece.
“I would want it to be set in the time when they still worshipped Greek gods like Artemis and Athena and Zeus,” she said.
“I tried to walk through it when we were up there,” said Addie Johnson, 9. “I was like, 'The door’s locked mom.' And she was like, ‘That leads to nowhere, honey.' And I was like, ‘Awesome.’ And she was like, ‘No, that’s just scary.’”
Scary or exciting. Addie said she would put a bakery on the other side of one of the doors to nowhere.
“I would probably make it into this huge bakery with free treats,” she said. “Probably cake, cupcakes and cookies.”