“By the mid 1970’s, the Law School realized it badly needed new space. After several years of planning and investigation, Gunnar Birkerts and Associates, of Birmingham, MI, was chosen to be the architects. Birkerts, a native of Latvia, studied at Cranbrook under Saarinen and had already proven capable both of innovative design and of successfully adding to existing buildings. Ultimately, the University decided the best new building for the iconic Law Quadrangle would be nearly invisible: it would be underground, which presented special challenges both architecturally and structurally.
Construction began in 1978, and was fraught with difficulties. The excavation proved difficult because of the intermittent layers of sand and gravel put down eons earlier by the last glacier; the sides kept collapsing, and the project fell behind. Getting behind schedule created financial problems. It was a time of high inflation, and when agreements made by subcontractors expired, new contracts were more expensive. Finally, in August 1981, the building opened.
Its high ceilings, large “light wells” that bring in light from several directions and direct it to even the lowest of the three levels, and on open structure make it surprisingly bright and airy. To walk down the stairs connecting the Reading Room to the underground addition is to experience the opposite of what one expects. Rather than descending into a dark lower level, one emerges into underground space significantly brighter than the above-ground space one left.”
“In her article, ” ‘Splendor Beneath the Grass’ in Michigan” in Architectural Record (March, 1982), Andrea Oppenheimer Dean states that Gunnar Birkerts’ University of Michigan Law Library Addition “is probably the most esthetically satisfying large underground building to have penetrated American soil.” Located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the 77,000-square-foot, subterranean Law Library Addition, which was designed between 1974 and 1977 and completed in 1981, has won two design awards and has been critically acclaimed in 18 national and international architectural journals. Mr. Birkerts was faced with the challenge of building an addition to the existing 1920s faux-Gothic Legal Research Building without compromising its architecture or context. After considering a number of above-ground schemes which unsatisfactorily filled the valuable open space at the southeastern corner of the Law Quadrangle, Mr. Birkerts’ final solution was to sink the new structure three stories underground, thereby implementing ideas which he had developed in his Subterranean Urban Systems Study, funded by the Graham and Rackham Foundations in 1974.
In the University of Michigan Law Library Addition, Mr. Birkerts demonstrates how his renowned, innovative use of daylight influences his architectural design in a dynamic way. A V-shaped, 160-foot-long light trench wraps around two sides of the old Legal Research Building, bringing daylight to all three levels of the new addition. The three floors are open balcony trays from which law students can readily view the icon Gothic building above. One slanting wall and the base of the light trough are constructed of limestone which reflects and diffuses daylight into the interior depths of the library. The mullions of the bronzed, glass, curtain wall of the trench are sheathed with yard-deep mirrors which keep out the glare of direct sun and add refracting complexity to the images of trees, sky and the Law Quad outside. A second, triangular, glass well at the southeastern corner of the building contributes more light to the student lounge and to the back of the building and esthetically perforates the open lawn space above which has been successfully preserved.”
Bentley Historical Library. (n.d.) University of Michigan Law Library Addition, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1972-1991. University of Michigan Library.
University of Michigan Law School. (n.d.) The Allan and Alene Smith Law Library Addition. University of Michigan Law School.