A new generation of libraries is opening its doors, upending conventional typologies and renewing debates about how library design needs to be adapted for the digital age. Four architects share their process
It's hard to name the most remarkable feature of this library: the dramatic cedar entryway inspired by the arc of Calgary's Chinook clouds, the soaring central atrium with a 25m-tall gap that runs all of the way up to an oculus, or the fact that the entire building sits atop the curved half-moon path of the light-rail system.
"It was difficult and expensive to do," admits project architect Dennis Rijkhoff, who is based in Snøhetta's New York office. "The train had to keep running; we had to bridge over it really early on in the process." There was also the obvious issue of mitigating noise and vibration for a building typology that is, in essence, about quietude.
But the train wasn't the only challenge. The building is located on an awkward site, previously a dead zone of gravel and parking lots, which faces the back of City Hall to the west and a Salvation Army building to the east. As a solution, the architects proposed a curved building that would connect the new urban developments of East Village with the existing downtown core. "The language of curves and arches really helps to bring down the scale," Rijkhoff says. "It was important that the building be friendly and welcoming".
Inside the 23,000sqm (240,000sqf) building, the programming spirals up via a sinuous staircase from what Rijkhoff calls "fun to serious", moving from a children's library on the lower levels to a tranquil reading room on the fourth floor that is bathed in muted light and ringed by vertical wood slats. While the library's stacks can appear a tad frosty lit up against unfinished concrete, the sumptuously furnished reading areas and profusion of natural light that pours in through geometric window panels more than make up for it.
Most importantly, the building is actively used. Over 670,000 Calgarians (more than half of its 1.2 million population) use the city's public library system and the new building is already attracting younger users with 'teen' services such as YouTube recording studios and video game consoles. In addition to a physical collection of 450,000 books, the library also includes more than 30 community meeting areas, a performance hall, a cafe and outdoor plazas.
Housed in the atrium of Starfield COEX Mall, the Starfield Library effectively transforms part of a shopping centre in Seoul's affluent Gangnam neighbourhood into a contemplative public space.
The library, which won the Grand Award at the 2018 DFA Design for Asia Awards in Hong Kong, occupies two levels, a mezzanine floor and a sunken plaza that once served as emergency shelter for fire evacuation. Sung-won Yoon, CEO of design firm Cenoplan, expertly converted the space into a light-filled library anchored by book towers. "I wanted to present a magical space," she says, "with the magnificence of the bookcase extending into the sky."
Although the plaza is located underground, glass walls on the ground level, and a glass roof supported by trusses allow ample natural light into the space. The more interactive programming is situated on the lower level, while the tranquil study areas line the mezzanine.
In addition to a large range of e-books, the 2,800sqm (30,000sqf) library contains more than 70,000 physical volumes, and it was their texture that guided Yoon's choice of materials. "I wanted to offer analogue-style-comfort to visitors with the familiar texture of paper books rather than e-books," she says. "In doing so, I used the neutral tone of wood as the main colour and added simple details in design, focusing mostly on the books and the readers."
In awarding the library a DFA award, the jury noted the project's achievement in adding cultural value to a previously underused space. "What this part of Seoul needs is not yet another retail store or restaurant," the report notes, "but a quiet space for intellectual or creative pursuit, reflection and relaxation."
Yoon agrees. "I feel we still need a place for having a break from all the busy life, being lost in thoughts, and enjoying intellectual idleness," she says. Libraries have taken a back seat in the civic planning of many modern cities, but adaptive re-use projects located in sluggish retails centres pose an intriguing solution. And the retailers are pleased too: since the Starfield library opened, nearby shops have reported a 30 percent jump in sales.
The Tianjin Binhai Library reaches for something ancient in imagining a library of the future. Designed by Dutch practice MVRDV in collaboration with local partners Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute (TUPDI), the library houses books in dazzling cave-like interiors ringed with a stream of undulating stacks. Sitting on any step, books are stashed behind you, beneath your feet and above you in staggered terraces that reach a soaring five storeys in height.
Developed as part of a larger masterplan to provide a cultural district for the city, the 33,700sqm (360,000sqf) library also houses educational facilities, which are located around the periphery of the interior and accessed via the main hall. Subterranean rooms hold a large archive and provide extra book storage.
With this project, as with their "Book Mountain" library in the town of Spijkenisse in The Netherlands, MVRDV's sparkling public spaces aim to seduce the public into reading.
"We opened the building by creating a beautiful public space inside; a new urban living room is its centre," Winy Maas, co-founder of MVRDV said upon the building's completion, referring to the spherical auditorium at the centre that watches over the space like a luminous, all-seeing eye. But whether the more than two million visitors who have visited the library since it opened in the autumn of 2017 came to read books is another question; currently only about 15 of the 60 bookshelves contain real books.
As Maas explains, the library's tight construction schedule (just three years from initial brief to delivery) forced an essential part of the concept – access to the upper bookshelves from rooms placed behind the atrium – to be dropped. To facilitate more books the library would need to start by adding fire protection, including steel on the higher levels, and more smoke detectors.
Finland is the most literate country in the world, so it's perhaps not surprising that a sweeping 17,250sqm (185,677sqf) public library, complete with robot librarians and a cinema, opened in December.
Tasked with creating a library that is also a national monument – the building celebrates Finland's 100th anniversary in 2017 – ALA Architects settled on a plan that includes three levels: a ground floor, a floating box and a space on top of the box.
The design brief called for a "living room for the nation", a welcoming social space worthy of its location next to the Parliament House, Alvar Aalto's Finlandia Hall and the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art by Steven Holl. To make the building feel welcoming, ALA clad the structure in Finnish spruce.
"The surrounding buildings are very hard architecturally," says ALA's co-founder Samuli Woolston. "The imposing stone colonnade of the parliament building, the quiet copper facades of the music hall and the glass and steel of the office buildings…we wanted to create a pleasant and welcoming building."
The brief also called for a flexible matrix of programming for multimedia activities, and ALA dedicated the majority of space to facilities such as audio-visual recording studios, a movie theatre and a 'makerspace'. "The whole idea with these is to provide ample room for improvising future uses," says Woolston.Traditional library stacks cover about a third of the library area, including the top floor, which has been nicknamed "book heaven" and features a vast undulating roof and scoops of circular skylights. "The serene atmosphere invites visitors to read, learn, think and to enjoy themselves," ALA says. As well as a source of daylight, the skylights add warm artificial light, important during the winter months when the library serves as a beacon for the city in the dark mornings and afternoons.
From this level visitors can enjoy an unobstructed 360-degree panorama view of the city centre, or step out onto the terrace overlooking Kansalaistori Square. The library, which is accessed under a dramatic arch on street level, is expected to attract 10,000 visitors per day, and 2.5 million visitors a year.