This just might be proof that reports of Chinatown's death have been greatly exaggerated.

The Chicago Public Library's ultra-modern Chinatown branch, boasting views of the city's downtown skyline, opened last August.

Costing US$19 million to build and designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the architectural firm that erected the city's two tallest commercial towers, the library is the world-renowned local firm's first hometown project in decades.

A triangular, curvilinear glass structure, the design is a delightful departure from the ho-hum, cookie-cutter brick facade that characterises many a public building in the city. It may have helped that feng shui master Jonathan Ng  advised on the project, resulting in a cohesive blending of design elements from East and West. The landscaping borrows from traditional and contemporary Chinese design aesthetics, incorporating water, islands and mountains.

"Buildings take their personality from the site and who's going to be using them, and those specific social factors drive the design," says Brian Lee, the SOM architect in charge of the design.

Energy flows freely within the open-plan building's two-storey atrium, which invokes a traditional Chinese courtyard and has a curving stairway that leads to the library's top floor.

A recent visit found it to be more of a community hub humming with activity than a fuddy-duddy research space in which everyone speaks in hushed tones. In the activities room, with a clear view of street life, a group ranging from primary schoolers to retirees learns elementary Putonghua. Upstairs, knots of older men banter in accented Cantonese and bang their chess pieces with a vigour usually reserved for mahjong.

In the United States, public libraries are popular venues in which to host group and after-school activities. Often it is the nexus of an otherwise individualistic neighbourhood.

Unlike other Chinatowns, which have lost either people or popularity, or both, the Chicago community has been booming, with a 26 per cent growth in population between 2000 and 2010. More than half of the residents are immigrants, of which 10 per cent have arrived in the past few years.