The short shelf life of this Dutch library’s collection enabled MVRDV to turn the spines out to face the town and invite in its inhabitants
Spijkenisse is a 13th-century town twinned with Thetford in Norfolk. It has a shorter Wikipedia entry than any of the partners of MVRDV. Although technically within the Rotterdam conurbation, creating the sense of a distinct town is still an ambition of its councillors. The Book Mountain library is part of a three-phase regeneration project which involved the rehabilitation of its commercial and civic centres.
MVRDV originally won the library competition in 2003, the building was completed in May 2012, the precinct and surrounding housing in September. The iconic ‘barn’ form of the building realises the ambition of landscape architect and urban designer Winy Maas to register the historic fabric of the area, as if the architecture were the culmination of refining an agricultural process. The building is intended to glow as a ‘beacon’ challenging the declining levels of library use and literacy across the Netherlands and particularly in Spijkenisse. But does this impression work in practice in a built-up town?
Unlike its flatland pen-friend, Thetford, Spijkenisse is a town that has been furiously re-thought by energetic architects with a back catalogue of housing projects articulating several generations of postwar dialogue over social rehabilitation and housing reform. Arriving by train, a Byker-Wall-size block is foregrounded by a 1980s brick terraced estate saved from resembling Brookside by its slightly more sophisticated roof forms. The space between the two is animated by a real model farm complete with large sows and brightly painted timber barns. Bob Dylan might have muttered ‘housing project hill’ to himself but of course all is very, very flat.
The shopping precinct, swiftly erected by Sjoerd Soeters, offers a jumbled set of eclectic vernacular and decorative references that somehow satisfy shoppers by reassuring them that they are not actually occupying the dreary town they live in, but belong to a global marketplace in a similar way to the Cape Cod / Bicester Village experience. The precinct unexpectedly swallows up the old town’s dyke which is surmounted by a slightly rusty escalator feeding you into the more windswept-feeling original civic centre. Ironically, a nearby windmill, surrounded by new developments that threatened its access to gusts, has had to be raised. It spins somewhat more frenetically than it might previously have done.
The urban setting of the library is unexpectedly quiet. Although the original brief did not incorporate the housing element, the open site provided the unusual opportunity for the architects to establish and secure the scale and disposition of most of the library’s neighbouring relationships. The open space in front of the building sets it squarely in conversation with the church opposite.The ground is paved to delineate the much denser plan of houses and fields that stood on the site in the 17th century. The names of previous occupants are carved at the thresholds. Window openings are marked in the stone plan and LED lights demarcate the same ghosts at night.
The raking of the paving to accommodate level changes, bicycle stands and steps, although carried out with only supervision rather than full direction by the architects, is still commensurately part of the whole. At the rear, the central house and ground it sits on are peeled up and tilted to admit two storeys of parking beneath the library building. The lights that illuminate the streetscape are the same as those used inside the library, further unfolding its potential.
MVRDV’s bold presentation and apparently simple geometrical concepts can lodge a set of fairly intransigent doubts in the magazine beholder of their work. The architects claim to approach each building typology afresh (excluding housing). The office is populated by ambitious models at all scales and all 56 members of staff apparently consume Emmental sandwiches and orange juice for lunch together at a long table every day, like an order of happy co-ed monks. As their first built library, Spijkenisse subverts many well-established precedents. Anticipating a building that might be an environmental disaster, a cross between the Luxor pyramid in Las Vegas and Stirling’s library of sweaty or freezing historians in Cambridge, the scheme proves to be unexpectedly sophisticated in its consideration of climate and acoustics.
The MVRDV approach is disarmingly pragmatic. Their competition proposal set about claiming the maximum volume for books within an envelope that met local planning guidelines for the height of the ridge in relation to the church, the eaves height and a 45-degree pitch. By imagining a barn-like envelope, the volume of the books and reading areas was sketch-modelled like a pile of hay bales and so they were able to offer considerably more volume of library space than had been requested. In fact, climbing over sound-absorbing hay bales and finding privacy within a huge enclosure is a good way to imagine the space.
Thanks to imaginative interpretation of technical advice, the building has amazingly sound-deadening qualities while still offering open visual navigation of the space. Perforated mesh behind the brick facings of the core pyramid soaks up distracting conversations that are out of sight remarkably successfully. The architects learnt from the librarians that the books had a short shelf life, that none of the books was rare or had any value, and therefore protecting their spines from fading under UV light was not an issue. This observation fundamentally justified and enabled the otherwise sacrilegious ambition of creating a daylit bubble for a library. In exposing the books to the town, the traditional strategy of securing and protecting books from the damage caused to them by light and readers is completely reversed.
While accessibility and legibility are cherished, unlike many other buildings of its type − including Will Alsop’s Peckham Library or Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève − this message is not delivered as an inscription or a legible sign: the books themselves are used as the visible sign and physical manifestation of the possibility offered by the library. It cannot be a coincidence that Bruegel’s ‘little’ Tower of Babel painting lives in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen − less than a mile from MVRDV’s office.
The brickwork is apparently continuous from inside to out, like Isi Metzstein’s at Robinson College. It forms the external skin of the domestic buildings and the roof tiles are not only coloured but also gauged to align with the perpend joints of the brick copings at the top of the gable ends. The glass canopy of the library indeed frames it as a lantern, the beacon that the architects intended the building to become.
The other reasons that a glazed envelope for a library would commonly be dispensed with early on in the design process are the failure to provide adequate thermal comfort without significant energy wastage, and the very obvious challenge of providing comfortable visual conditions for reading without excessive glare. However, both the environmental strategy and the detail of the envelope at Spijkenisse library address these issues head-on. Different environmental consultants were engaged at sketch and detailed design stages. The ambition was to create a very ‘calm’ thermal and visual environment.
Although being designed before the age of certification, the scheme design set out to minimise environmental impacts from its competition stage. It contains two ground-source heat pumps and the central brick core has perforations at the top and beneath all the bookcases that are used as the orifices of a whole building mechanical ventilation and heat recovery system. The thermal currents running up and down the glazed envelope are directed to contribute to the circulation of the system. Underfloor heating offers continuous stable temperatures while steel sandwich panels, which are apparently brick faced, contain phase change materials to cool ceilings in summer.
The overarching skin is less of a slick one-liner than its photographs suggest. The skin is supported by a structure of 1m-deep glue-laminated timber portal frames set only 1.35 metres apart. This means that the frames in themselves are fins projecting into the space, and are able to provide a considerable degree of solar shading, acting as vertical louvres. An impressive amount of pipework, as well as the adjustable shading blinds, are concealed between the outer face of the structure and the glazing itself, leaving only tracks for internal glass cleaning to disrupt the clarity of the sturdy exoskeleton.
Significant efforts have been made to minimise visual clutter. The number of materials and colours on show is reduced as far as possible, bringing the lively spines of the books into the foreground. The stretcher-bond coursing of the brickwork core is continued in parallel on the floor and ceiling, with the bricks laid as pavers.
Sliced bricks are applied across doors and architraves and printed onto lift doors and interiors. When the perpendicular courses collide at corners, they are meekly and fairly knitted together to make diagonal junctions. Similarly, courses of bricks following the direction of travel up the treads of the stairs continue until they collide one by one with the turn at the top. As a result, the whole appears to be excavated from a solid, but also the lines of navigation are subtly set out.
Trees grow in pots on the top terrace café within the library (the same species is planted outside), and project architect Fokke Moerel explained that these also help to moderate the internal environment. The only non-functioning element apparent at this point is the nested summit reading room, which, like Peckham Library, has pods which are not occupied. They were intended to play similar roles to the Peckham pods, offering intimate spaces to small groups of young people, but perhaps the experienced librarians are playing a subversive role here by furnishing them with uncomfortable tables.
The pleasure of visiting the library far exceeds the promise of its photographic reproductions. The acoustic qualities are remarkable, and on an overcast January afternoon it evidently provided comfort and respite for teenagers on Facebook, in another world from pensioners in the café above.
As library attendance in the Netherlands, as everywhere, is changing, and literacy rates are challenged, the optimism of this design − so removed from the faded glory of its fellow East Anglian town − is admirable. Equally impressive is the ability of a public client to recognise the potential role of architects in creating a modest local identity such as this. In a manmade landscape of dykes and poly tunnels it feels absolutely natural to make a mountain out of books.
Photographs: Jeroen Musch