Flyleaf—A Modular Ode to the Paper Book

Flyleaf—A Modular Ode to the Paper Book

In our daily design practice, we balance a multitude of parameters on behalf of our clients. Stringent timelines intersect with tight budgets and even more challenging sites. But what if you were able to design a space free from parameters? How would this affect the creativity and inventiveness of your design?

Architecture competitions allow design to begin from a position of indeterminacy—nothing— not budget, not time, not gravity—is rigidly prescribed. Yes, there are generally competition parameters, qualifying requirements, deadlines and the like; and it’s a good idea to consider these if winning is of interest. But in a broader sense, architecture competitions are an opportunity to think, design and communicate experimentally. And this freedom provides the rejuvenating value of the pursuit.

Back in November, SMRT entered Archhive Books’ Portable Reading Room competition—an international design challenge tasking participants with creating a modular book-sharing structure that could be easily assembled and disassembled in cities around the world. The goal was to encourage reading in community spaces and ensure accessibility for all. We are proud to share Flyleaf here, which was one of only two U.S. based entries to receive an honorable mention.

Think: balancing focus with a wide-cast net

SMRT used this competition as a chance to be experimental not only with the nature of our final design but with our process. We assembled a five-person design team to carry out the design and submission for the competition. The team met regularly to brainstorm, share sketches, resolve details and coordinate progress. Having a core design team kept the project focused and allowed for quick and responsive progress.

The core team’s work was supplemented by a sequence of office-wide design charrettes which created a continuous cycle of ideas, feedback and iteration. The result was an office-wide familiarity with the project that inspired an informal and open sharing of ideas even outside of the scheduled charrettes. Through desk visits, lunchtime conversations and hand-delivered sketches, the final design submission became the rich result of a balanced yet expansive design process.

Design: reflecting on the act of reading and the entity of a book

Today’s proliferation of digital and auditory reading materials expands the lens through which we define the act of reading and the entity of a book. Our final design, titled Flyleaf, is a space for readers of all types to pause and celebrate not only the intangible enrichment of reading but the tactile experience of physical, paper books.

The form abstracts a paper book placed on its spine and falling open. A series of webbed and nested frames open to form an airy, shaded canopy. Users travel beneath the canopy to a central spine which houses the book exchange bookshelf on one side and bench seating on the other. Bike racks are integrated into the structure along an exterior face of the central spine.

Like the act of reading a paper book itself, Flyleaf physically engages its occupants. An operable pulley system allows users to open and close the nested frames with a hand crank. In its closed position, Flyleaf provides sheltered and accessible book storage and seating through winter and inclement weather.

Flyleaf’s prefabricated logic allows for a simple material palette composed almost entirely of cross-laminated timber. ETFE film as well as stainless steel hardware support versatility, portability and easy assembly. Photovoltaic panels integrated onto the exterior seams of the webbing power LED lights that allow reading sessions to extend into the evening.

Communicate: varying the language of design

In any circumstance, architecture is largely an act of representation. Especially, however, when the express purpose of design is not construction, there is a unique opportunity to consider the defining role that choices in representation play in communicating the intention of a design. The honest vitality of a hand sketch, the resolved satisfaction of an axonometric detail, the hopeful enthusiasm of a photo-realistic rendering, each communicate something different about intention. In addition to standard architectural drawing, e.g., plans, sections and elevations, our final submission included diagrams, axonometric details, photo-realistic renderings, hand sketches and even a logo. By presenting the design from multiple vantage points we sought to bring greater depth to the reader’s understanding.

Design competitions are a change of pace and they are fun. But above all, they create a fresh and unique platform on which to learn and find inspiration through experimentation and risk-taking. What is gained on this platform has meaningful translations in the reality of the industry and the built world.

Check out the winners and our honorable mention submission here: