An open book: the library revolution

6 July 2015

In a digital age, how can libraries evolve from establishments focused on printed matter to dynamic public spaces that prize all forms of media and foster community engagement? And what role does architecture have to play? Ross Davies speaks to Morten Schmidt of Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, Anttinen Oiva Architects’ Vesa Oiva and Martin Laursen of Adept.

The celebrated Argentine short-story writer and essayist Jorge Luis Borges once commented: "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library."

As a young child, Borges cut his intellectual teeth in his father's library, said to have contained more than 1,000 volumes of English literature alone. His vision of the celestial library might have included the likes of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina of ancient Egypt - the third-century-BC's definitive symbol of knowledge - or perhaps the dark-panelled halls of the University of Oxford's Bodleian, the carrels of which have been occupied over five centuries by countless fellow creative minds, including Oscar Wilde and William Morris.

These two examples, however, suggest a sense of cloistered privilege and classicism - in essence, intellectual forcing houses. But Borges, who held the position of director of the National Library in Buenos Aires for 18 years in later life - also appreciated the inclusive value of the civic library.

What remains more open to conjecture is what he would have thought of the changing architectural face of these urban institutions in the 21st century. What, for example, would have been his take on the Seattle Public Library's Central Library, as designed by OMA's Rem Koolhaas?

Opened in 2004, the Seattle Building is commonly identified as the game-changer in library design. Out went the monumentality long associated with civic structures (think the porticoed entrance to New York Public Library); in came a 363,000ft2 polygonal shell, formed almost entirely out of glass. Inside, new public spaces were created, including a 'mixing chamber' living room and kids' space.

Koolhaas, already in touch with the rise of digital media, also made sure to incorporate numerous high-tech features, including a computerised book-handling system, through which volumes with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags are automatically identified, sorted and routed to readers.

“Our ambition is to redefine the institution – no longer dedicated exclusively to the book but as an information store where all potent forms of media, new and old, are presented.” 

Speaking at the time, Koolhaas stated: "Our ambition is to redefine the institution - no longer dedicated exclusively to the book but as an information store where all potent forms of media, new and old, are presented equally and legibly."

Bookending print repositories

The Seattle Public Library's Central Library is rightly identified as a trailblazer. In the intervening decade since it opened, a number of institutions, such as the 189-million Library of Birmingham - the largest public library in Europe - and the University of Aberdeen New Library have sprung up.

The latter, completed in 2012, marked Danish firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects' first foray into modern library design. In the form of a 167,00ft2 box-like edifice, its exterior comprises vertical stripes and glass; inside, eight floors pivot around a central atrium. The project was subsequently garlanded with the 2013 Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland award for best design.

But what makes a library commission different from the other typical projects Schmidt Hammer Lassen has taken on in recent years, including a number of office buildings and hospitals?

"While hospitals tend to be very oriented towards functionality, efficiency and technical issues, and office buildings need to cope with budget constraints, libraries are different as they focus primarily on people," explains senior partner Morten Schmidt.

"OK, it might vary from country to country, but the diversity and feel of a community needs to be represented in the building. Libraries of today act as gathering places for people where we can share our knowledge, beyond the internet and cyberspace."

In the past couple of years, Schmidt Hammer Lassen has also undertaken work on two library projects in Canada - Halifax Library in Nova Scotia and Highland Branch in Edmonton, both completed in 2014. It is also currently working on redesigning Christchurch Central Library in New Zealand, which was destroyed by the 2011 earthquake.

While the buildings vary in size and scope, they all share a number of common features, including atriums, skylights and floor-to-ceiling fenestrations. According to Schmidt, they all lend themselves to a sense of transparency and openness - prerequisites for any social hub function.

"These buildings were previously very dark, home to tinted brown window panels with hardly any daylight," he says.

"However, we wanted to create a different environment, where you can feel part of a change and part of something new. So we have created these light-filled places. The atriums also connect all the spaces in stacked form, in which everyone can feel as though they are part of the building."

The third way

"Libraries of today act as gathering places for people where we can share our knowledge, beyond the internet and cyberspace.” 

Fellow Danish firm Adept completed Dalarna Media Library in Falun, Sweden, last year. Similar to University of Aberdeen New Library, the fulcrum of its interior is a triple-height atrium, around which wrap stairs and bookcases.

The building, which also houses large open spaces, was created with a view to holding lectures, theatres and classical concerts, in keeping with Dalarna University's original brief for the creation of a community space.

"The intention was for the library to become a 'third place' in the city - something sitting between private and public space," explains project architect Martin Laursen. "So, in offering traditional library functions alongside the creation of a new community centre, which puts on lectures and concerts, the value of the library equals more than the sum of those two purposes individually."

Helsinki University Library, completed in 2014 by Finland's Anttinen Oiva Architects, also shares similarities with Adept and Schmidt Hammer Lassen's works. Streamlined apertures, large mullioned windows and elliptical light wells grace each of its seven floors, invoking what one might imagine a large Silicon Valley tech company's headquarters to look like.

"This combination of modern technology, contemporary architecture and open spaces encourages creativity," says project architect Vesa Oiva. "This spatial concept also strengthens the feeling of fellowship, and promotes encounters and interaction between different faculties."

Some conservative voices, however, argue that the architectural community has been overzealous in its attempts to foster community engagement, particularly among younger users. Have multipurpose libraries - once identified as havens of tranquillity - become, in effect, the new shopping mall? Is such an environment especially conducive to studying?

"In our case, we feel we have actually improved study conditions," says Laursen. "The existing library in Falun didn't have the necessary study areas - physical or digital - as well as limited variation of noise zones.

To meet the dual demands for active and quiet spaces, our library is based on a classical arena design. There is a loud central space celebrating common functions, and, at the same time, quiet zones and smaller spaces behind the walls of books."

For Oiva, the distinction between the public library and academic institutions is key to the debate.

"While both now need to be more adaptable regarding how digital material meets the physical environment, academic libraries and public libraries notably vary in their functional concepts," he says. "The traditional model of a tranquil library is still relevant in academic libraries - at least in Finland. The main focus is still on the collections and spaces for studying them. I'm not quite sure that this is always the case in public libraries."

Oiva is correct: books no longer represent the heart of the contemporary library. Visit Birmingham Library, for example, and one is immediately struck by the conspicuous lack of printed matter across its vast ten storeys.

It would be foolish to suggest that the dominance of the internet and smart technology hasn't had any form of adverse impact on biblio-culture but, as the aforementioned examples imply, libraries still appear to be held dear in society, albeit in a different guise.

Instead, in Schmidt's eyes, libraries now have the potential to become symbols of civic pride and "beacons of the community".

"Modern generations haven't used the church for a long while as a place to meet up," he says. "Neither do we use pubs as gathering places as much as we did. Instead, commercial venues like shopping centres have become the places where people feel connected.

"But we need places that are non-commercial and not driven by the selling of products. I therefore believe libraries have become one of the few real and honest places for the community to gather."

Helsinki University Library recalls the open, collaborative and interactive space...
Helsinki Library, designed by Anttinen Oiva Architects, was opened last year.
Halifax Library, Nova Scotia.
Helsinki University Library.
University of Aberdeen New Library embodies Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s philosophy...

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