John C. Hodges Library: An Architectural Perspective

This month, we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of the John C. Hodges Library, which is an expansion of an earlier building of the same name that stood on the site until 1984. That first building, officially the John C. Hodges Undergraduate Library, was built in 1969 to deliver collections and services to the arriving wave of baby boomers.

The new John C. Hodges Library opened in September 1987 with 40 miles of book stacks and 1.1 million volumes. The new expansion essentially wrapped around the core of the older building and more than tripled the library’s square footage. Hodges Library was at the time the largest and most modern library building in Tennessee.

Interested in learning more about the library’s design? Architect Doug McCarty, principal-in-charge of the expansion from Knoxville-based architecture firm McCarty Holsaple McCarty, will give remarks at a reception at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the first-floor galleria outside Special Collections. The adjacent Elaine Altman Evans Exhibit Area will unveil new displays including the original architects’ model for Hodges Library.

Jennifer Akerman

Jennifer Akerman

Tennessee Today reached out to Jennifer Akerman, assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Design, to ask about the shape of the building and what challenges the designers may have faced.

In some descriptions of the library’s design, it’s been called ziggurat-shaped. What can you tell us about the ziggurat as a design choice?

JA: One idea I like that’s embedded in this question is that everyone gets to interpret buildings in their way. Those interpretations may differ from person to person, or even from what the architects intended when designing a building. It’s interesting that you use the term ziggurat to describe Hodges Library—it’s never struck me as such. Ziggurats were very special religious buildings in ancient Mesopotamia that were understood to be temples for the gods, not for the people. They were built in terraces as a way to allow the gods to be closer to the sky.

Hodges Library aerial view

I see the design of Hodges Library as being more like a hill or mountain rather than being like a ziggurat. Thinking of it like a mountain seems appropriate given the terrain of East Tennessee and our campus’s relationship to that landscape. And it’s a public monument for learning. Building successive terraced layers, as we find at Hodges, creates many spaces inside the building where students, faculty, and staff can enjoy daylight and views to the landscape and campus outside. It also functions as a kind of retreat, where one can feel secluded while working or reading.  

This formal organizational strategy creates a monumental structure that’s less hierarchical and more democratic in terms of distributing prime views and adjacencies.

What are some other examples of ziggurats in architecture?

JA: Several compelling contemporary examples come from the Danish firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group).

Their project Mountain Dwellings in Copenhagen, pictured above, is a terraced housing complex (completed with JDS Architects). By staggering housing units, each home gets a private garden and a view. The interstitial space underneath holds a parking garage and common areas.

The same firm also designed a new corporate headquarters for LEGO, pictured above, in Billund, Denmark, using a similar stacked block technique.

What are the challenges faced when redesigning an expansion of an existing building? 

JA: The biggest issue is deciding how much of the original building will remain, and in what form. The relationship of new to old is a critical question for the architects to consider carefully. Experientially, when walking through Hodges Library, one can be totally unaware that much of the present building is an expansion of the original library. That’s a choice made by its designers—Knoxville-based architecture firm McCarty Holsaple McCarty—presumably after consideration of many factors.

Building additions can have challenging site constraints because the original building’s relationship to its site and the adjacent context has already been established. In dense settings, it can be difficult to find space on the site for more building. The existing spatial sequence through the building and the location of major spaces can limit what’s feasible for the addition. There can also be structural difficulties, as the original building might not have been designed with an addition in mind. Sometimes newer building codes can make it unfeasible to retain elements of the original structure that fail to meet the current legal best practices.