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Reading the Wilderness
In a new town, the library seems to grow from the forest floor.
By Clair Enlow

Maple Valley Library may not seem like it's in a city. Decaying logs, twigs, and small snags litter the ground, tall trees filter the sunlight, and a thick cushion of forest floor duff absorbs sound. But the project is at the very center of a plan to turn a small community into a mature and livable "edge city." With the library project, the new city of Maple Valley, just outside Seattle, has begun to do the impossible: mix urban development with a healthy, intact Pacific Northwest forest ecosystem.

The landscape is not exactly "designed." Instead, the natural landscape is recomposed around a very strategic set of decisions about the site-decisions made by the landscape architect with the entire design team. Like nature, it seems a little haphazard. "Scruffy," is what landscape architect Barbara Swift, ASLA, calls the look.

But looks are deceptive. Underneath the forest litter, the project is surgical, she said. Swift is principal of Swift & Company, and her firm worked with James Cutler Architects and civil engineer SvR Design Company. The operation at Maple Valley Library involved fitting a dramatic, modern library snugly into the woods. Absorbing a 12,000-square-foot building and 61 parking stalls into a healthy forest required the design team to go beyond the usual environmental standards and the typical tools for achieving them.

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