Posted by: bluesyemre | October 6, 2019

The history of the #library: why bigger isn’t always better


MVRDV’s Tianjin Binhai Library © Getty

Architects love statement buildings but it’s hard to reconcile dramatic design with social reach

In 1785 Étienne-Louis Boullée designed a library that has haunted architecture ever since. Conceived on a vast scale, it comprised towering walls of books with a grand piazza between them and a vaulted roof bigger than any that had ever been built spanning the space above. It was a vision of the library as a representation of the world itself — an idea that Jorge Luis Borges would later explore in his short story “The Library of Babel”. In the Argentine writer’s dizzying conceit, “an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries” make up the universe, “which others call the Library”. These dreamlike visions of the all-encompassing library remain influential, as several recent projects demonstrate. Just look at Dutch architects MVRDV’s Tianjin Binhai Library in north-eastern China. Opened in 2017, the huge building is designed to look from the outside like a giant human eye, a nod to Boullée’s contemporary Claude-Nicolas Ledoux — whose most referenced drawing (1784) depicts an eye with a vast theatre reflected in it — and maybe too a sly metaphor for a country obsessed with surveillance.

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Étienne-Louis Boullée’s vision of an all-encompassing library © Alamy

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MVRDV’s Tianjin Binhai Library © Polaris/Eyevine

Inside, the books swirl around a huge globe at the centre, the white shelves undulating wildly to make seating, steps and galleries — it’s all very clever. But look again at those book spines. Most of them would be hopelessly out of reach, and they are in fact fake, aluminium sheets printed to mimic books.

MVRDV says that this is because plans to make the upper shelves accessible were overruled locally. It’s an instance that points up the practical limitations of visionary architecture — and suggests that, when it comes to libraries, bigger is not necessarily better. Like a well-thumbed paperback compared with a deluxe collector’s edition, the small and shabby branch library may have more going for it than its blockbuster cousin.

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Apple’s retail store in downtown Washington © Getty

The Library of Birmingham, which opened in 2013 and was designed by another Dutch practice, Mecanoo, illustrates the perils of scale. A piece of metropolitan boosterism for the UK’s second-biggest city, it cost £189m and replaced an actually very fine (and now posthumously rather fashionable) Brutalist building by John Madin (1974). Yet within less than two years, its opening hours were almost halved and half the staff made redundant.

Or take Washington DC’s Central Public Library, a finely carved pile of Beaux Arts stone with a grandeur that Boullée might have admired. Originally funded, like thousands of other libraries, by the 19th-century industrialist Andrew Carnegie, it has recently reopened after years of disuse — as an Apple Store. Foster + Partners (with the involvement of Jony Ive) have done a fine job of reconfiguring it, but it is no longer a library.

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The old Birmingham library, 2009 © Alamy

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The new Birmingham llibrary, 2017 © Shutterstock

Grand buildings may be wonderful landmarks, monuments to learning (and to their benefactors), but they are also a burden to maintain. In terms of making the most difference to lives — to opening up new worlds for those who do not come from households already well stocked with books — local libraries surely have the edge. These, however, are vulnerable to cost-cutting. In the UK, more than 700 libraries have closed since 2010. For any society concerned about social mobility this is a tragedy.

Libraries are also potentially pivotal to the survival of fading urban and particularly suburban centres, the last local refuges of civic space, where consumption is not mandated. As such, they may ultimately help high streets survive the online shopping apocalypse.

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The Oodi, designed by ALA Architects © Shutterstock/Aleksandra Suzi

This is not to say that big is necessarily bad. Some cities manage to reconcile statement architecture with social reach. Consider the colossal new central library in Helsinki, the Oodi, designed by ALA Architects. A purposefully open building — with acres of space devoted to, well, just space — it is intended to symbolise a culture dedicated to education, with a capital that proudly sees itself as a city of reading.

Yet proof of the truth of the Finns’ self-image resides less in the Oodi than in the network of smaller libraries that stud the city. From the University Library, whose dramatic parabolic arches are the work of Anttinen Oiva Architects, to the no less architecturally ambitious Maunula community centre in the suburbs (K2S Architects), all of them are open to anyone. Libraries are to Helsinki what piazzas are to Rome.

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An engraving by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1847) © Getty

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The Tianjin Binhai library in China © Ossip van Duivenbode/Cover Image

Another recent success, this time in the Netherlands, is the LocHal library, which occupies a former railway shed in the city of Tilburg. Plants droop from the old riveted iron beams, and the glazed roof brings light deep into the interior; crucially, Civic Architects and Braaksma & Roos Architects have kept the building’s industrial texture intact, so that, for all the reinvention, it still feels familiar, already bedded in.

Meanwhile in the US, Chicago has opened a series of libraries with social housing above. SOM’s Little Italy Branch is a prime example, a fine new library woven into its urban context. For a study in contrasts, look east, to New York’s Hunters Point Library, a striking standalone structure by Steven Holl with breathtaking views across the East River. Both projects cost about $40m.

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Communal working area at LocHal library © Alamy

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Seattle Central Library, designed by OMA © Alamy

For a long while, architects and city boosters, dazzled by Boullée, have been hung up on a vision of the library as akin to a blockbuster gallery. But the concept of the library as the repository of all knowledge looks increasingly archaic in the era of the ever-ramifying internet.

To my mind, the most impressive space in arguably the most impressive library of the past two decades, OMA’s Seattle Central Library, is not the theatrical spiral of books but the brilliantly lit reading room at its top, where the gentle snoring of the homeless over their half-read newspapers provides a regular aural background to study. The way a building accommodates the disenfranchised is the sign of how truly public it is.

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