Foster + Partners folds Apple store into historic Washington library

Foster + Partners folds Apple store into historic Washington library

Tomorrow morning, Apple’s anticipated Carnegie Library store will open its doors in Washington DC. Designed by Foster + Partners, the four-year-long project has seen the 200-year-old library painstakingly reinvigorated, in what is Apple’s most extensive historic restoration project to date.

The Beaux-Arts style building has a rich and varied history, which has been respected within the fabric of the new design. Once home to Washington’s Central Public Library, it opened in 1903, and was chiefly funded by Andrew Carnegie, renowned for his vision of public and free space for all.

Carnegie’s ethos chimes with Apple’s shifting retail philosophy. As the tech titan moves away from devices and into subscriptions, its store designs have changed shape too; into places for community and experience; where products are available to purchase, but aren’t the sole motivation for visiting. Instead, there’s designated space for Apple’s free programme of creative events, and the stacks have been converted into the ‘Genius’ area where tech-advice is doled out where the books once were.

‘Because of changes to traditional shopping patterns, Carnegie was about coming and exploring and feeling a sense of calm in what is a magical space,’ explains Chris Braithwaite, Apple’s senior director of retail design. ‘If you then walk away with a positive feeling then we’ve done our job.’

Uniquely, Carnegie is also home to the new DC History Center, which includes the Kiplinger Research Library, three galleries and a museum store, all owned and operated by the 125-year-old Historical Society of Washington DC. The non-profit has benefited enormously from the Carnegie Library refit; but the relationship is a symbiotic one. Apple benefits too, through the Society’s community-orientated approach, and its emphasis on interaction and learning – key pillars in Apple’s own retail strategy.

Apple store designed by Foster + Partners in Washington DC, USA
Photography: Nigel Young / Foster+Partners

Visitors are welcomed by the renewed grand entry plaza, onto which, the 100-year-old Vermont marble façade stands anew, complete with totally restored sculptures. A skylight that once illuminated the original library’s circulation desk has been blessed with a new design, creating a new double-height atrium – the impressive height of which offers the kind of visual punch common to Apple stores globally.

Inside, restorative flourishes are what Stefan Behling of Foster + Partners calls ‘subtle gains’. They will impress the eagle-eyed, and the design literate alike. Traditional wooden skirting boards have been assiduously matched-up to contemporary ones. A newly instated, but timeless, terrazo flooring could have been there forever – and now, probably will be, thanks to its durability.

‘Many architects deal with old and new, and some decide to go to the extreme of expressing new or elaborate shapes,’ Behling explains. ‘Our collective decision with Jony [Ive] was to go with a very careful and minimal differentiation. It’s almost invisible – like the roof at Apple park, for example. It’s completely effortless. You’re not drawn to the skylight itself, but the sky beyond it.’

Apple’s design chief officer Jony Ive was very much involved, and helped to instill a sense of respect for tradition throughout the project’s duration. ‘With Jony, we agreed that it was important to know our place,’ Behling continues. ‘The building has obviously been here for 100 years, but it will be here for another 100 to come.’ §

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