Boldly plundering historical sources, this new library in Stuttgart is both rich in allusion and full of surprises
The new Stuttgart city Library is contained within a perfect white(ish) cube placed directly to compass points, labelled in languages that address the four faces of the globe. Designed by Yi architects, the building is a pantheon at the heart of a concentric plan, crowned by an inverted ziggurat reading room, iced with rotating photovoltaic roof panels and encased in a seamless nine-by-nine grid that emits blue light at night.
Accompanied only by a ‘pet’ cube housing the air-conditioning plant, there is no other indication of an orienting hierarchy, of a possible front or back. Its drawings would fit well in the 1960s Whole Earth Catalog, the mind-expanding publication termed a precursor to Google by Steve Jobs.
The scheme, won by the practice in competition in 1999, makes further explicit references not only to Boullée’s 1785 visionary Bibliothèque nationale de France proposal, but also to Noah’s ark, confucian theory of concentric order and the monolith at the heart of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Set in the city that built the showcase Weißenhofsiedlung for the 1927 Deutscher Werkbund exhibition, the library leans on a pedigree of architectural polemic. architect Eun Young Yi quotes mies van der rohe: ‘What matters is not “what” but only “how”.’ But in this case, does the ‘how’ overwhelm the ‘what’? Does the building’s deafening conceptualism eclipse a more subtle tune in its potential to disseminate knowledge? Or, as its architect claims, can the architecture recede to act modestly as a ‘host’?
Yi has responded energetically to an established appetite to deliver symbolism. he is not shy to cite timeless universal values nor to deal with the consequences of perfect symmetry. he states of Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey: ‘The basic question about the origin of civilisation and the standpoint of mankind has a lot in common with my work.’ The library was charged with a brief of centredness as the culmination of a process of deduction over a 30-year period of urban decision-making that has become highly controversial.
Stuttgart 21 began in the 1980s with an aim to reclaim 100 hectares of valuable land from railway sidings within the restrictive basin of the city’s hilly topography. The plan aims to transform the railway from a terminus to a station and is conceived as a ‘European quarter’ connected physically and culturally to the rest of the continent by new high-speed rail links.
A library was proposed at the centre of the scheme in Trojan + Neu’s winning plan in 1997. While the rationale of the surrounding masterplan has become a target of heated local and national protest, the library opened last October and is already functioning with a fabulously mechanised beating heart as a lending library from which you can borrow not only books but artworks also.
Though, at present, it is approached more or less by gang-planks from two axes bridging the enormous new tabula rasa that is being prepared for development by yellow earth-moving machines. While the reference to the monolith is clear, Yi does not mention what is to my mind the building’s most obvious precedent: the nine-bay Palazzo della civiltà Italiana, the colosseo Quadrato designed by Guerrini, La Padula and romano and built at the heart of mussolini’s Esposizione Universale roma (EUr) between 1938 and 1943.
Undercutting a temptation to ridicule the bravado of the project is the delightful experience of encountering such an obsessively detailed and carefully executed building. (It was tempting to photograph 45m-high unerring lines of sealant just to show builders at home in Britain.) approaching and entering through the translucent skin structure is a surprisingly animated experience.
Like glimpsing the moving belts of a photocopier through its flatbed, the nine-storey delivery mechanism nakedly rotates obligingly and silently at the left-hand side of the west door, where a 24-hour book deposit hatch sits admirably flush to the surrounding wall. Being designed by a cologne-based Korean architect and constructed in a manufacturing maelstrom, most doors slide rather than swing and do so perfectly.
For British readers more used to entering a library being slapped in the face by a flatulent revolving door and a series of notices telling you why the public building you are about to enter is unsafe / about to close / slippery because someone has washed the floor / a place where you should not teach children to suck pens / smoke, the unimpeded ability to march straight into the building causes the mental timpani of Strauss/Kubrick to kick off at this point.
The ground-floor periphery, flanked by inset silent television screens, introduces the power and versatility of the all-pale-grey world of the interior, and demonstrates that facilities for reading newspapers and sitting at computers can be treated with the same material equanimity. The area encases the cubic pantheon at the centre. This four-storey 14m3 void is surmounted by a square oculus illuminated by natural light from the reading room above supplemented by blue LEDs.
Directly beneath, a tiny square pool and fountain sit in the centre of the terrazzo floor. The walls (rendered in mineral plaster with no movement joints at all) and ceiling are perforated with rectangular and square niches and windows to resemble the Pantheon’s coffers. Yet despite being designed to promote meditation, it also suggests social interaction with views across it from the stairwells.
An inner skin containing a quadruple helix of stairs between walls is perhaps the craziest gesture of the building, providing what appears to be an endless potential for errant children to lose their parents and shout at strangers without being readily identified. The outlying spaces on each storey, coated in pale grey floors and furniture, are the same height, sheathed by sliding glass walls which open to give access to continuous promenades around the outside of the building.
The idea of a library acting as a new secular urban catalyst is far from new. however, Yi’s creation of an anti-materialist inner sanctum within a public library presses the idea far further than its contemporaries. Diodorus described the 14th-century Bc library of Ozymandias as ‘the dispensary of the mind’ that contained at its centre an inner chamber, a ‘sacred library’. But there is a significant disjunction in so far as Yi’s ‘heart’ does not actually contain any books.
Whereas ancient libraries sought to enshrine texts as the most highly valued cultural currency and to limit access as a privilege, public libraries have later sought to reverse the architectural hierarchy by offering information to all. The spatial apportionment of the new library goes further and suggests that it is the wondering thoughts of the visitor rather than the literary content of the library that is most valued.
The outermost external skin, an immaculately doubly fair-faced concrete wall only 80mm thick, contains translucent glass blocks with open portals in each of the 320 bays. Based on the visual experience of timber-framed Korean buildings, translucent screens frame transparent picture views of the outside world. From the inside, these focused vignettes subdivide the scale of the overall to serve the individual like carrels can.
They are a far cry from the conventional lack of imagination with which a curtain wall system is conceived. It is this unexpected sensitivity that reverses your preconceived suspicions. The children’s library is a delight, composed of unfolded bookstack modules and makeshift reading spaces. The strangeness of the building begins to have charm in detail. The balustrades in the reading room, each subdivided and apparently modestly made from steel flats, have clearly had a significant amount of time invested in their design.
The crisis of the ‘eckkonflikt’ (corner conflict) is deftly turned at the newels, the spiralling ceiling grids are resolved like a happy sudoku, the trolleys and trays within them in the café align with the width of the columns they rest against, and suddenly this crazy, arrogant, puffed-up building presses all the obsessive- compulsive buttons of staring-around-a-room- and-thinking-while-reading spectacularly.
The motto of the Deutscher Werkbund was ‘Vom Sofakissen zum Städtebau’ (from sofa cushions to city building). The library aptly delivers a progressive scaling of decisions from masterplans to handrails. Indeed the diagrammatic ambition and dematerialised detailing of the scheme are extraordinary and thus far, while clean and unblemished, wonderful to behold.
People and multi-coloured book-bindings can be seen visually to animate an otherwise entirely pale grey field. If we are to accept that the architecture is merely a host as claimed, we must acknowledge it is a very eccentric, generous and entertaining one. But you really must remember to wipe your feet.