Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

Typology: Libraries

In this piece from November 2011, Oriel Prizeman examines six recent public library projects in the first of a major new quarterly series on typology

Public library design is rooted in the era of Victorian philanthropists, who strove to maintain collective order while facilitating individual exploration. But today’s advances in technology and civil unrest have put this dual requirement to the test. This review charts how six recent libraries are tackling the challenge as they attempt to bridge the past and the present

The American writer John Steinbeck suggested books be printed on rye bread, having noted a request from a librarian in England’s second city, Birmingham, for customers to stop using rashers of bacon and kippers as bookmarks.1 His pithy observation, rather than the spatial conundrum of Jorge Luis Borges’ infinite library,2 is perhaps most relevant to the idea of library design today. In the wake of the August riots across the UK, the issue of how social control and the free navigation of public space may co-exist topped the political agenda.

The history of public library design is entirely related to this challenging dual requirement: to maintain collective order while ostensibly encouraging individual exploration. The Victorian roots of the public library movement devised various means by which access to precious books might be safely shared among an increasingly large and diverse group of people.

With few exceptions, the history of the public library is relatively short − 160 years or so − and is closely related to the progress of political enfranchisement. While all buildings designed to contain books are potentially engaging, it is those which negotiate the direct interface between a body of knowledge and an open urban realm that face the most complex challenges, so this review is limited to a number of public rather than academic or private libraries.

In the past 20 years, two key pragmatic aspects that had dominated the theory of library design have been radically transformed by technological change: the physical scales of containment and the ability to maintain environmental control. Before the digitisation of books became a possibility, the question of infinite physical expansion was the key issue for copyright libraries and national collections. While for early public libraries funded by scant means and maintained by limited funds, the cost of operation was the key feature of their design.

Architects submitted running costs with their competition bids. But as the price of electricity diminished, libraries came to depend more on its steady, controllable state than on leaky, draughty rooflights. Now, however, in the context of an energy conservation agenda, architects again win competitions on the basis of their proposed energy use. Meanwhile, during the short era of public libraries, the parameters of perceived comfort have been radically altered by our familiarisation with artificially controlled environments.

The requirement to enable visual surveillance of such spaces in the past was the driving force behind their physical arrangement. Thousands of libraries, from Robert Smirke’s 1857 British Library to Alvar Aalto’s 1965 Seinäjoki Library, had a radial plan enabling librarians to monitor readers with optimum efficiency. The French botanist and conchologist Jules Paul Benjamin Delessert had first proposed the application of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison design for libraries in 1835: ‘We can not doubt the immense advantage for surveillance, to be placed in the centre of the building’.

Entries for the AR Library awards are open now

Click here to find out more and start you entry today

Today, for librarians, as for the police, although CCTV has enabled them to review events after they have happened, the need to see across the space may remain a key feature of library design. Here six recent international examples, ranging in scale from national to local, are reviewed to help recognise enduring themes.


National Library of China by KSP Jurgen Engel Architekten

Containing 12 million volumes, this is third largest library in the world. Though surrounded by a moat, it fits the vast motorised urban grid
of Beijing. Its adjacency on the west to the picturesque Zizhuyan Black Bamboo Park is punctuated by tower blocks. A visual separation between horizontal elements refers to traditional Chinese precedents of deep overhanging eaves.

The building has three distinct constructional and functional layers: earthbound historic base; publically navigable and translucent central portion; and a digital roof layer.


National Library of China sections

Extraordinary efforts were made to lift its earthquake-proof steel canopy into place. It enables a 60m span across a naturally lit reading room with 2,000 seats extending vertically from the basement to the third floor, entirely free of columns. The room would neatly house the entire footprint of Birmingham’s new library. This man-made cultural cavern is designed to sandwich past and future and its three-dimensional void promises a concept of freedom. Although the quality of its design is clearly in contrast to unremarkable neighbouring blocks, its glowing, floating form in the humid air of Beijing might have been more impressive had it been allowed to refer further to the setting of its ancient precedents and were it not bordered by an eight-lane highway.

Beijing, China, 2008: 80,000m² /1.235 billion RMB yuan (£122.4 million)


Library of Birmingham by Mecanoo

Birmingham, most Victorian of British cities, is also most experienced in Library re-invention and awaits completion of its fourth central library in less than 150 years. Each incarnation has swung the pendulum of the subsequent brief. The first burnt down, Chamberlain’s replacement was deemed too small by 1938. Its post-war incarnation by John Madin opened in 1974 was designed to be clad in marble and surrounded by a water garden; the finish was dropped for economic reasons yet its dismal Midlands concrete patina most inspired its demise. Today Mecanoo’s BREEAM ‘excellent’-rated scheme promises a more animated vision for the city clad in aluminium petals and glass.

Mecanoo’s Francine Houben sees the breadth of the brief as unique in Europe. The building is clearly conceived in navigational, as opposed to iconic, terms and is thoughtfully adapted to its neighbours. On entering, direct views in all directions give clear lines of sight.


Library of Birmingham ground floor plan

A third-floor terrace offers access to survey the city: what Houben calls its ‘soft hills’. Chamberlain’s Shakespeare Memorial Room was dismantled and re-assembled in Madin’s library and crowns the ninth floor of the new library. The core of the building is excavated by a spiralling series of offset cylindrical courts providing natural ventilation. In the middle of the building, the rotunda is surrounded by browsable books with reading rooms located at the periphery, close to the light.

This will not be a quiet library: an anticipated 10,000 visitors a day will be allowed to chat on escalators as they traverse the interconnected activities, including a subterranean, outside performance area overlooked by a circular balustrade at ground level. This hole in Centenary Square is pictured with a grand piano to arrest the attention of the passer-by. Asked whether Birmingham’s native Heavy Metal repertoire might also be revived in the space, Houben says simply: ‘Of course, why not?’

Read the AR’s full coverage here

Birmingham, UK, 2013: 35,000m2 / £193 million

King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture by Snøhetta

Like the National Library of China, Snøhetta’s enormous scheme also uses separate elements to represent links between past, present and future. A cluster, inspired by striped pebbles, houses an auditorium, cinema, museum, children’s ‘discovery zone’, multifunction hall and lifelong learning space. The combination of programmes is not new; what is innovative, beyond the beguiling forms themselves, will be their life in such a social and environmental context.

The glistening knot is a trophy in a desert whose subterranean fruits have literally fuelled the global economy of the 20th century. The shiny detail of an eternal pipeline covers its surface, revealed on approach and animated by the movement of the sun, to inspire awe. The building deflects rather than cherishes light. How the interstices of the skin will weather, just as how free navigation of such interior spaces may happen, has yet to be understood. The scheme’s technical ambition together with a programme that seeks to make connections should be worthy of marvel.

Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia, 2012: 45,000m2 / US$300 million (£190 million)


Rolex Learning Center by SANAA

Again, the Rolex Center uses open-plan space to encourage interaction but in this instance, it is between teaching and learning, the programme being open to the public and students. It houses a specialist scientific collection and it is the only scheme here to mention silent zones in its description. SANAA’s Kazuyo Sejima described it as an ‘intimate public space’. Punctuated by holes, the hilly building admits light from above but also gardens from below.

Floor and ceiling follow undulations in parallel. The continuous open space seeks to respond to a global trend in academia to encourage cross-fertilisation of ideas and interdisciplinary research.


Rolex Learning Centre floor plan and sections

As with many apparently simple strategies, its gently undulating roofscape is the result of significant technical creativity and it is openly described as ‘experimental’.Formwork was positioned on site by GPS and the roof was poured in one go, over two days, to achieve a continuous surface.

The challenging prospect of assessing the environmental performance of the single open volume was simulated
to meet Swiss Minergie energy targets. As with Snøhetta’s scheme, it is a highly crafted building using meticulous methods of construction to produce novel architectural form, emphasising both the new and established values of its programme.

Read the AR’s full coverage here

École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, 2010: 22,000m2 / CHF110 million (£77.5 million)


Bibliothèque Multimédia à Vocation Régionale by OMA: Rem Koolhaas, Clement Blanchet

This is OMA’s first library building in France. An exhibition in Paris in Summer 2011 showed its designs for the Très Grand Bibliothèque in Paris (1989) and Jussieu (1992). Noting that of 45 schemes in France only four were built, it emphasised the importance of theoretical development in OMA’s work.

Adopting a brownfield site, an X-shaped plan intersects reading rooms for science and arts at the heart of Caen Library. Perceived as a ‘flagship for its region’ the cross points to four landmarks in the bomb-damaged city of William the Conqueror. Like the Birmingham library, despite being highly glazed, the building is also required to be an environmental exemplar of the French Haute Qualité Environnementale standard.


Bibliotheque Multimedia a Vocation Regionale sections

Using shallow (23m) floor plates to maximise daylight, it will function without air conditioning and use passive ventilation and areas of printed and screened glazing located according to orientation.

The relatively simple and presumably economic orthogonal structure of the building contains its main reading and browsing area within a double-height piano nobile space conceived as an ‘observatory of knowledge’. Unusually for a library, it encourages an elevated ship-like perspective over the neighbouring park, waterfront and city. Blanchet describes the building as a ‘social actor’. Naturally illuminated by day and glittering by night, this transparency at the intersection is used as a visual beacon. A central desk on the main floor overlooks low-level shelves and allows visual surveillance of the whole. An interior collage with a snoozing customer in the foreground recognises and anticipates the life of the library set against its more symbolic objectives.

Caen, France, 2015: 12,700m² /€51 million (£45 million)


Biblioteca España by Giancarlo Mazzanti & Arquitectos

Hamlet was perhaps not imagining his native Denmark but rather a public library in Medellín, Colombia, built in 2009, when he muttered: ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space’. Giancarlo Mazzanti has made a deliberate attempt visually to transport the library users away from their impoverished surroundings.

Poised like giant boulders above the basin of Medellín, the library has the iconic presence of a religious statue, giving visual order over a jumbled townscape beneath it. Unlike the other more formally inventive buildings here, however, it does not serve nor is it funded by a wealthy context.


Biblioteca España floor plan

Its dark, chiselled, brown stone-clad capes punctuated with clusters of small windows shroud simply stacked floorplates internally. The space between the two provides the volume for heat and light to circulate. While the construction of building has been criticised for its leaking roof, it has also been widely praised for its intelligent provision of learning space and of an outdoor balcony over the city.

With significant pressures on resources it seems unfair to condemn the building for its workmanship when, by contrast, its positive message is so overwhelming. The high quality of the design proposal is not extravagant in technical terms compared with other buildings here and it is grim to conclude that only the wealthiest societies can support ambitious design.

Medellín, Colombia 2008,1068m² US$4 million (£2.5 million)


It is evident that in all the schemes illustrated here, today’s public library brief is more than simply functional. At all scales, varying in scope from nation to town, the public library is being framed globally as an emblem of hope and a symbol of cultural establishment. Recurring references demonstrate a shift from the pragmatic concerns of capacity that dominated the design agenda of the 1960s and economic preoccupations of the early public library movement. It is clearly the symbolic value of enabling the physical browsing of books that is celebrated today.

The existence of the Kindle, it seems, does not dent this ambition but rather bolsters a recognition of the importance of offering places for physical access to information or, at least, of being seen to do make such provision. Browsing the internet delivers a self-fulfilling prophecy − unless you like pop-up adverts. As Patrick Arends at Mecanoo emphasises, the accidental encounter of alphabetical order and social interaction is the promise of the new public library. Since the infinite space of the internet may be accessed from the private realm of the home computer, the library provides containment, and the characterisation of its identity through scale and form has become critical.

Today’s ethical panacea of sustainability is readily married with such positive and extrovert programmes. While often led by target-driven mechanisms, it is to be hoped that buildings with such lofty moral status may start to deliver enviable environmental innovation, albeit from a crumpling public purse. It is clear that despite much environmental advice to the contrary, cold and dull northern European skies still inspire the specification of expansive glazed facades. Increasingly sophisticated techniques to keep using the marvellous qualities of glass are still being pursued vigorously.

Victorian preoccupations with the sanitary aspects of light and air in public buildings are perhaps eclipsed by televisual aims of glamorising the perception of everyday life. It is certainly true that in offering an invitation to enter spaces resembling the shiny corporate world, some sense of social equity is delivered. In this respect, library designers on BREEAM and equivalent leashes are responsible for delivering new environmental paradigms that may, in turn, influence the design of shopping centres, offices and hotels.

Further Reading

Black, A. 2005. ‘The Library as Clinic: A Foucauldian Interpretation of British Public Library Attitudes to Social and Physical Disease, Ca. 1850-1950’. Libraries & Culture. Vol. 40, no. 3, 2005: 416-34.
Black, A, Pepper, S, Bagshaw, K. 2009. Books, Buildings and Social Engineering. London: Ashgate.
Brawne, M. 1970. Libraries: Architecture and Equipment. London: Pall Mall Press
Champneys, B. January 1902. ‘The Design of Libraries’. The Architectural Review. Vol. XI.
Cotgreave, A. 1901. Views & Memoranda of Public Libraries. London: Library aids co.
Edwards, E. 1859. Memoirs of Libraries: including a Handbook of Library Economy. London: Trubner & Co.
Levine, N. 1982. The Book and the Building: Hugo’s Theory of Architecture and Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Ste-Geneviève in The Beaux-Arts and nineteenth-century French architecture, edited by R Middleton. London: Thames & Hudson
Papworth, JW. 1853. Museums, Libraries, and Picture Galleries, Public and Private; Their Establishment, Formation, Arrangement, and Architectural Construction. / to Which Is Appended the Public Libraries Act, 1850, and Remarks on Its Adoption by Mechanics and Other Scientific Institutions; with Illustrations. London: Chapman and Hall.
Pepper, S. 1986. ‘A Department Store of Learning’. Times Literary Supplement, 9 May 1986, 1.
Pepper, S. 2006. ‘Storehouses of Knowledge: the free library movement and the birth of modern library architecture’, in The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland. Vol. 3 1850-2000, edited by A Black and P Hoare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Roth, M. 2011. Library Architecture and Design. Salenstein: Braun Publishing.
Snape, R. 2006. ‘Libraries for Leisure Time’, in The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland. Vol. 3 1850-2000, edited by A Black and P Hoare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Thompson, A. 1963. Library Buildings of Britain and Europe: An International Study, with Examples Mainly from Britain and Some from Europe and Overseas. London: Butterworths.


1. See Steinbeck, John et al, ‘Some Random and Randy Thoughts on Books’, originally published in The Author Looks at Format, edited by Ray Freiman. American Institute of Arts. 1951.
2 See Borges, Jorge Luis. 2000. The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986. Allen Lane, The Penguin Press: 214-216. The Argentine author and librarian wrote the 1939 essay on which he based ‘La biblioteca de Babel’, in Borges, Jorge Luis. 1941. El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan. Buenos Aires: Sur.
3 Delessert, BJP. 1835. Mémoire sur la Bibliothèque royale, où l’on indique les mesures à prendre pour la transférer dans un bâtiment circulaire. Paris: Imprimerie de H Dupuy.

Related files

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.