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Helmond City Library by Bolles+Wilson, Helmond, The Netherlands

The completion of a library by Bolles+Wilson in The Netherlands raises great expectations – which are not disappointed. Photography by Christian Richters

Julia Bolles and Peter Wilson founded their German office with the much loved Münster City Library, one of the most outstanding and memorable buildings of the 1990s (AR February 1994). So the completion of another library, this time in the Netherlands, raises great expectations – which are not disappointed. Even the first glimpse of the facade elicits something of a frisson, though in the era of icons and signature buildings it could too easily be misjudged for style without considering the whole. As at Münster though, the relationship with the context is vital and needs to be appreciated, not only for the specific responses to place and the making of fronts and backs, but also for the deploying of internal territories so everything has its rightful place and each piece relates to its neighbour.

Helmond is a small industrial town near Eindhoven. The library site lies a few hundred yards west of the old centre and market place. Excessive post-war demolition destroyed the coherence of formerly dense habitation here, and the urban plan by Joan Busquets sought to restore the street pattern. The largely commercial redevelopment was to be spiced with a rebuilt public library for which a competition was duly held and won by Bolles+Wilson. Within the block plan already set by Busquets, its principal and north facade needed to complete a primary street of two-storey terrace houses. On the site behind was something else altogether: Piet Blom’s cube houses and theatre of 1972, an extraordinary monument to Dutch structuralism. The houses stand like cubes on hexagonal stalks, with all surfaces at 45°. This strange work reflects both the obsessive geometry of the architects from Aldo van Eyck’s circle and a deliberate breakaway from the banality and supposed rationality of the modernist box. Such unconventional architecture might be considered unneighbourly and hard to nudge up to, but Bolles+Wilson enjoyed the challenge, and their presence makes the south side of the building utterly different from the north. Blom’s hexagonal plan produced some strong lines 
to react to, and the development of alleys on the south and east sides follow it. By contrast, the west side of the library is provisional, a party wall against a future building, probably by others, which will complete the block. Paradoxically the blind western edge of the library locates and initiates the regular planning grid of the whole building, against which the other edges play their irregular games.

The principal facade reveals the operation of the building’s section. About three quarters of the ground floor is occupied by independent shops, a stipulation of the masterplan but also a way of animating the street. Their glazed fronts progressively detach from the library volume by diverging from the upper facade, while the horizontal base line is stressed by steps in the pavement. That the middle level of the facade contains the library proper with its reading rooms is revealed by a band of glazing in a deep and continuous slot, relieved occasionally by coloured panels. The top floor in contrast is all library offices, its brick facade punctuated by smaller window holes. It rises to a parapet without visible roof, a decidedly urban treatment in contrast with the roofy back. Terminating these horizontal bands is a pair of angular turret-like vertical accents cantilevering out in grey brick to announce BIBLIOTHEEK in vertical letters. They are reminiscent of Erich Mendelsohn, master of the asymmetrical modernist corner, who had in turn reinterpreted the Gothic turrets of his teacher Theodor Fischer, which were understood as accents within the town-planning hierarchy. The larger turret surmounts the main entrance, incorporated in its west-facing corner. The site plan reveals how the angle change allows maximum visibility along the street, like the stair tower of Mendelsohn’s Stuttgart Schocken. Left of the entrance lies the only double-height window, which illuminates the entrance hall and initiates the internal progression of spaces.

A further refinement of the facade are the projecting grey-framed windows, one on the first floor and the other on the second. While the former makes a bay at the end of the reading area, the latter just occurs in the end office, suggesting that their role is more about balancing external composition than denoting special rooms within.

The entrance hall with its double-height volume declares the cross-axis of the building, penetrating visibly to the other side where daylight is again seen, a spatial intention caught well by one of Wilson’s freehand perspective sketches. Passing through the doors, the visitor turns right to meet a long reception counter and the main stair, tapered to dramatise its ascent. The main lift is at the corner of reception and the stacked circulation suits it equally well, but the stair dominates to provide continuity and orientation. To the rear, borrowing the skew of the main stair and spreading along the south side to share an alley with the cube houses, is the café, which opens up invitingly as you progress from the main entrance.

The main stair prompts a left turn at the top, to the back of the main library floor, a territory of book stacks running east-west. The dominant impression is of daylight. A row of desks along the south edge sets an intimate scale, with low hooded windows inclined downwards to exclude the sun. Behind them, the ceiling lifts in a sawtooth profile, cleverly sharing the baffled rooflight with the upper floor. Other reading areas with varying views and daylight line the rest of the perimeter, and the big north windows are unrestricted, but a strong sense of centre is given by the circular ‘hotspot’, an area devoted to information technology and music. Defined only by a red carpet and slightly lowered ceiling, and partly enclosed by screens, it is nonetheless architecturally effective, made more focal by daylight falling through a void above.

The top floor is dominated by a lifting roof that rises to meet the upper part of the baffled rooflight, with more reader places along the edge. The stacks here run north-south, broken by an aisle leading to the central enquiry desk. Territories are marked along the north edge with green and blue stripes of carpet, repeating in the opposite direction a treatment that in the floor below marked the cross-axis and circulation void. This coloured band in the top floor also embraces a meeting room and the void to the rooflight which, on closer approach, permits glimpses of the sky and floor below. The change of scale between floors is nicely exploited, the upper one a more unified space doubly tapered in its plan by the boundary with Blom to the east and the line of the stair to west. The north side is devoted to offices and meeting rooms with blind storage across the corridor.

The rear facade is seen only from close up, for the alleyway shared with Blom’s cube houses is narrow. Here the continuity between the café’s inside and out is important, achieved with constancy of level, continuous floor-to-ceiling glazing turning a corner at the east end, and several sliding doors. The eastern wing of the café has continuous built-in seating and a rising soffit inflected towards outside and south, and internal tables and chairs continue visibly without, allowing for varying degrees of exposure to the weather. Although the glazing rises to the ceiling, it retains a modest scale with a horizontal break at door level, and the structural columns are disguised with painted panels. The grey brick wall above is broken mainly by the downward-projecting window slot, which tells of reader places on the first floor, but there is also a large window to meeting rooms at the end. Just visible above the wall are the baffles of the great glazed south light roof. In comparison with the cleverly composed north front and the more intimate front to the alley, the building’s east side is unseen, relaxing into large areas of bland brick broken irregularly by service doors and upper-floor windows that exploit the rooftop views.

Structurally, the library relies on a universal column grid standing on piles that supports horizontal floorplates with suspended ceilings. This originated from a demand for basement car-parking that was later axed for cost reasons, but it remained the structural basis. Such grids have become the norm for urban buildings, usually accompanied by universal service provision in lighting and ventilation, which allows anything to go anywhere. All too often this encourages the most economical shoe-horning of accommodation consistent with the demands of the regulations. Bolles+Wilson always opposed such thoughtless universality, seeking a maximum degree of place-making, which has meant tussling with the demands of the structural system, allowing unique edge conditions to develop. The northern facade shows it best, with extra columns along the front for the shops, and certain first-floor columns displaced outwards to be treated like elements of wall. These displacements and transferred spans are small, so not difficult structurally, but the rational system is treated with contempt, and when columns and wall elements do occur they are often suppressed with coloured panels.

It was vital for the facade design that the first-floor windows be pulled back into a deep slot, which leaves the top floor cantilevered forward, stressing that the grey brick wall above is mere hanging facade, in no sense load-bearing. Yet the turrets, because of their polygonal form and corner joints, do start again to look like structural brickwork even though there must be concrete behind. All this is done with a knowing tectonic playfulness, taking advantage of the layering demanded by modern insulation standards. 

Bolles+Wilson is a place-making practice. On one hand, this has meant a close reading of context to fit in with surrounding buildings and streets and to achieve orientation. It makes a work like this library belong to its place – unthinkable elsewhere – and thus no autonomous sculptural piece. On the other hand, it demands an imaginative effort in differentiating the interior to give every part a rightful place and an appropriate character, exploiting views and daylight. Wilson’s minimal sketches display the place-making intention well, but what neither sketches nor photographs adequately convey is the sense of the whole, as one space unfolds into another. The art of managing this can be traced through the plans and sections, but you have to work hard to follow it and to recognise the subtlety of the moves. At a time when interest has shifted so far towards the glossy image that plans and sections are often forgotten and have even become banal, it is most heartening.

Architect Bolles+Wilson, Münster, Germany
Project team Julia Bolles- Wilson, Peter L Wilson, Christoph Macholz, Heiko Kampherbeek, Axel Kempers, Anne Elshof
Services engineer Huygen Installatie Adviseurs
Structural engineer Adviesbureau Tielemans
Brick supplier Hagemeister
Standard lighting Fagerhults Belysning AB
Carpeting & flooring FFF Filzfabrik Fulda

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Ruud Hakvoort, director Helmond Library, is very proud to be the user of this new library building in the city of Helmond since june 2010. The building has lots of promises to become a modern momument and state of art in the cultural hart of Helmond. Many thanks to Peter Wilson ans his staff.

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