Focus: Libraries


Can great design halt the slide in the use of public libraries and put them back again in the heart of the community?


Words by Kay Hill

Libraries are an easy target for cost-cutting councils that like to think that everyone can afford to get online at home or buy a second-hand paperback from Amazon. But the reality is that libraries have a special place in people’s hearts, both here and around the world, and despite all the access to electronic information, they are still seen as vital public services.

A report from Arts Council England (ACE) detailed some of the reasons why libraries are worth saving:

  • More than half the UK population has a current library card and 224.6 million library visits take place each year, more than visits to Premier League football games, the cinema and the top 10 UK tourist attractions combined (says the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy)
  • Access to health information at libraries reduces GP visits, saving the NHS an estimated £27.5m a year (says ACE)
  • Libraries supply 10 million free academic journal articles and 26 million hours of internet access a year. The productivity resulting directly from library visits adds £38m in value to the UK economy (says the British Library)
  • Nearly 800,000 children a year take part in the Summer Reading Challenge through their local libraries, keeping literacy skills growing through the holidays

MVRDV, in collaboration with local architects at TUPDI, created China’s Tianjin Binhai Library, a 33,700 sq m cultural centre including a spherical auditorium and seemingly endless shelves mixing real books with aluminium graphics in hard-to-reach areas. The scheme also includes meeting rooms and educational facilities. Image Credit: OssipMVRDV, in collaboration with local architects at TUPDI, created China’s Tianjin Binhai Library, a 33,700 sq m cultural centre including a spherical auditorium and seemingly endless shelves mixing real books with aluminium graphics in hard-to-reach areas. The scheme also includes meeting rooms and educational facilities. Image Credit: Ossip

Dan Wood, principal at Work Architecture Company, has recently completed Kew Gardens Hills Library in Queens, New York – an area where library use is going up.

Yet, back in the Nineties, when he was working on Rem Koolhaas’s Central Library in Seattle, the worry was that libraries could become completely obsolete. ‘There was a real fear that books would disappear,’ he recalls. ‘We were competing with book stores that were putting in coffee shops. Now, the bookstores have disappeared online and the library is the default place.’

MVRDV, in collaboration with local architects at TUPDI, created China’s Tianjin Binhai Library, a 33,700 sq m cultural centre including a spherical auditorium and seemingly endless shelves mixing real books with aluminium graphics in hard-to-reach areas. The scheme also includes meeting rooms and educational facilities. Image Credit: OssipMVRDV, in collaboration with local architects at TUPDI, created China’s Tianjin Binhai Library, a 33,700 sq m cultural centre including a spherical auditorium and seemingly endless shelves mixing real books with aluminium graphics in hard-to-reach areas. The scheme also includes meeting rooms and educational facilities. Image Credit: Ossip

Far from going out of fashion, the Queens’ library system is one of the biggest in the world, he says, and library usage is steady or going up in all the branches. ‘Queens is very diverse, it’s a place with immigrants and we serve a lot of people who are new to the country. The library has replaced a lot of the social support system that used to exist. It’s not really about the books, or even the computers – the library helps people do their taxes, it has after-school programmes and language classes, community meetings are held there. The library is about creating a community as much as about being a book repository; it unites people.’

Work Architecture Company designed the new Kew Gardens Hills library in New York, one of the busiest branches in the US. The building has a green roof, and a facade that raises and lowers around the perimeter to allow a mix of open views and more privacy in areas such as the teen study centre. The section of the facade at the entrance folds out over the street to make an awning – reminiscent of a folded page in a book. The project won a 2018 AIANY Merit Award. Image Credit: Bruce DamonteWork Architecture Company designed the new Kew Gardens Hills library in New York, one of the busiest branches in the US. The building has a green roof, and a facade that raises and lowers around the perimeter to allow a mix of open views and more privacy in areas such as the teen study centre. The section of the facade at the entrance folds out over the street to make an awning – reminiscent of a folded page in a book. The project won a 2018 AIANY Merit Award. Image Credit: Bruce Damonte

There’s a popular fallacy that the only people darkening the doors of public libraries are the elderly and parents with small children. In fact, a huge study of library use across the UK, carried out by the Carnegie Trust UK, found that people between 15 and 24 are now the age group most likely to use libraries in England while, in Scotland, those aged between 24 and 34 are the most likely. Despite the fact that they have a smartphone in their pocket that can access the knowledge of the world, library use among millennials is actually growing, says the report.

Hazel York is partner at Hawkins \ Brown, which has just won planning permission for a scheme to redevelop the Grade II-listed historic Plumstead Library in Greenwich with a new extension that includes leisure and coffee shop facilities.

The 35,000 sq m Library of Birmingham created by Mecanoo includes workshops, staff accommodation and a 300-seat auditorium with foyer, shared by both the library and the adjoining repertory theatre. A cantilevered volume provides shelter at the entrance and serves as a grand balcony with a discovery garden. The brightly coloured children’s area includes a performance space. Image Credit: Harry CookThe 35,000 sq m Library of Birmingham created by Mecanoo includes workshops, staff accommodation and a 300-seat auditorium with foyer, shared by both the library and the adjoining repertory theatre. A cantilevered volume provides shelter at the entrance and serves as a grand balcony with a discovery garden. The brightly coloured children’s area includes a performance space. Image Credit: Harry Cook

‘As fewer of us are able to own our own homes, there is a clear need for somewhere people can socialise, study, work or hold a meeting, or even just relax with a good book,’ she says. ‘The great appeal of the library is that it is democratic space where there is no obligation to spend money.’

She believes that the general pressure on public services could actually help libraries to survive as councils try to integrate services: ‘We are able to design buildings that are space-efficient and cost-effective to run, and integrating libraries with other facilities like shopping centres, schools or housing schemes can help with this.

Perhaps the public library stands to benefit from the constant pressure to consolidate council facilities?

Beyazit State Library in Istanbul was originally part of the Beyazit Mosque, dating back to 1506, becoming a library in 1884. It has now been completely refurbished by Tabanlioglu Architects that replaced a concrete roof with a light and transparent inflatable membrane structure covering the courtyard, filtering the daylight and providing a controlled atmosphere. In the renovated shell of the building, black glass boxes display ancient manuscripts almost as works of art, while a shop, cafe and exhibition space create added interest Image Credit: Emre DörterBeyazit State Library in Istanbul was originally part of the Beyazit Mosque, dating back to 1506, becoming a library in 1884. It has now been completely refurbished by Tabanlioglu Architects that replaced a concrete roof with a light and transparent inflatable membrane structure covering the courtyard, filtering the daylight and providing a controlled atmosphere. In the renovated shell of the building, black glass boxes display ancient manuscripts almost as works of art, while a shop, cafe and exhibition space create added interest. Image Credit: Emre Dörter

The renaissance of the public library is a great opportunity to co-locate civic, business, cultural, social, leisure and education facilities all in one place. The Corby Cube, a building we completed five or so years ago, does just that, and the library is a connector for all these other services. The result is a lively hub that is used 24/7, and that most people in the town have reason to visit at some time or another. You can even get married there!’

Around the world there is a trend for libraries to become part of something bigger – the stunning six-storey library in the coastal city of Tianjin in China, designed by Dutch architecture practice MVRDV, has an auditorium for concerts at its heart, along with reading rooms, lounge areas, offices and meeting spaces. While younger Chinese people are avid readers of ebooks (a market that has grown 20 per cent there each year since 2012) the library is seeing 15,000 visitors each weekend, many drawn by the stunning atmosphere as much as by the 200,000 books (it will house 1.2 million volumes when fully stocked). The huge King Fahad National Library in Riyadh, designed by Gerber Architekten, contains a gallery area, bookshop and restaurant, as does the stunning refurbishment of the Beyazit State Library in Istanbul by Tabanlioglu Architects.

Beyazit State Library in Istanbul was originally part of the Beyazit Mosque, dating back to 1506, becoming a library in 1884. It has now been completely refurbished by Tabanlioglu Architects that replaced a concrete roof with a light and transparent inflatable membrane structure covering the courtyard, filtering the daylight and providing a controlled atmosphere. In the renovated shell of the building, black glass boxes display ancient manuscripts almost as works of art, while a shop, cafe and exhibition space create added interest Image Credit: Emre DörterBeyazit State Library in Istanbul was originally part of the Beyazit Mosque, dating back to 1506, becoming a library in 1884. It has now been completely refurbished by Tabanlioglu Architects that replaced a concrete roof with a light and transparent inflatable membrane structure covering the courtyard, filtering the daylight and providing a controlled atmosphere. In the renovated shell of the building, black glass boxes display ancient manuscripts almost as works of art, while a shop, cafe and exhibition space create added interest. Image Credit: Emre Dörter

Greg Walker of Houser Walker Architecture, which recently designed the Palmetto Library in Atlanta, Georgia, notes: ‘We also see a great demand for flexible rooms, of different sizes, that can be utilised by groups in the community for events and meetings. In many public libraries here in the Atlanta area, small-scale digital manufacturing – “fab labs” – are being installed into the public libraries.’ Francine Houben, founder of Dutch architecture practice Mecanoo, has worked on numerous libraries, including the Library of Birmingham, and has noticed a similar change in focus: ‘Libraries have changed significantly over the past generation. They are no longer the domain for solitary book study. Information and knowledge is no longer limited to the book, but shares its place with other mediums such as digital media.

Small but perfectly formed, the tiny Redcliffs Library is run by volunteers from the New Zealand village community it serves. The previous building was destroyed in the Christchurch earthquake, the replacement designed by Young Architects. The library design was inspired by the shape of books themselves, while the polycarbonate street gable was back-lit to give a welcoming glow. Image Credit: Dennis RadermacherSmall but perfectly formed, the tiny Redcliffs Library is run by volunteers from the New Zealand village community it serves. The previous building was destroyed in the Christchurch earthquake, the replacement designed by Young Architects. The library design was inspired by the shape of books themselves, while the polycarbonate street gable was back-lit to give a welcoming glow. Image Credit: Dennis Radermacher

Visitors not only want to consume information but also create, so libraries have moved from rather passive environments to more active environments and their design must incorporate a greater diversity of spaces and furniture types for a greater array of activities.’

As well as large, multi-use libraries, technology has also created the possibility of much smaller, but just as functional community libraries, such as the compact Redcliffs Community Library in Christchurch, New Zealand, by Young Architects. Automatic checkout and return reduces staffing needs, central book storage serving several libraries and ebook facilities mean that clients in even the smallest library can have the same access to reading materials. And these community buildings can also be more welcoming, thinks Hazel York: ‘The traditional library was a grand civic structure, somewhere so imposing you were reduced to a whisper. Since then we have seen a move to a much more accessible building type. It is easy to think that good accessibility means lifts and ramps, but it is much more than that. Public libraries need to be accessible in every sense of the word – digitally, intellectually, culturally and financially.’

Small but perfectly formed, the tiny Redcliffs Library is run by volunteers from the New Zealand village community it serves. The previous building was destroyed in the Christchurch earthquake, the replacement designed by Young Architects. The library design was inspired by the shape of books themselves, while the polycarbonate street gable was back-lit to give a welcoming glow. Image Credit: Dennis RadermacherSmall but perfectly formed, the tiny Redcliffs Library is run by volunteers from the New Zealand village community it serves. The previous building was destroyed in the Christchurch earthquake, the replacement designed by Young Architects. The library design was inspired by the shape of books themselves, while the polycarbonate street gable was back-lit to give a welcoming glow. Image Credit: Dennis Radermacher

While libraries are still seen as the Cinderella of public works, they run the risk of being sidelined and underfunded – but architects can change all that, believes Greg Walker. ‘We think great design – spaces that are inspiring to be in – are so desperately missing from our public lives that libraries have a unique opportunity to create memorable and vital experiences.

If you can open the door to the library through design, you have a much greater level of engagement and, consequently, identification with the institution itself. You become, even subconsciously, a supporter of maintaining the institution and a champion through your continued use.’





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