THEY stir up the mind, libraries. If, like me, you can while
away an hour of your life standing on the top of a stepladder,
reading a book you didn't come in to read but which looked hands
down more interesting than the book you were actually looking for,
then you will understand.
Nevertheless, in an age of increasing digitisation, the question
whether libraries have a future is being raised with some
regularity. This is something that is addressed by the Danish
architect Bjarne Hammer in his foreword to the new Roads book,
Hammer writes of libraries as places of study, meeting, and
encounter; as places where myriad kinds of relationship can be
developed and enhanced; and as a "Third Place": neither home nor
office, but neutral ground.
Above all, he suggests that access to the physical building of a
library, a space where knowledge can be exchanged in an environment
of human interaction, "should be considered an unconditional
The attractive coffee-table book that he introduces is primarily
concerned with the architecture of some of those spaces: where
meticulously arranged books are kept, read, and cared for,
certainly, but also where, on a socio-anthropological level, much
more goes on.
Lavishly illustrated, and with explanatory captions in English,
German, French, and Spanish, Libraries takes in buildings
from all over the world. They are presented in no particular order,
but, in a nod to antiquity, Alexandria comes first - not the glory
of Ptolemy, but its modernist 2002 successor by the Norwegian firm
Snøhetta, with its soaring concrete columns and airy, light
OTHERS follow: famous and less well known, large and small. The
enormous Bauhaus-inspired design of Eckhard Gerber (2013) in the
heat of Riyadh, for example, is balanced by the small village
library in Huairou (Li Xiaodong Atelier, 2011), nestling in
snow-covered mountains outside Beijing, its windows covered in
Alberto Kalach's work in Mexico City (2006), all steel and
glass, seems to be made up entirely of ordered levels and
right-angles. This building, in the capital of a former Spanish
colony, to some extent either deliberately or unconsciously calls
to mind that other edifice of angular regularity, Philip II's
late-16th-century Escorial Palace, outside Madrid.
At first glance, the Escorial complex - whose groundplan is said
to be based on a gridiron, in honour of St Laurence's martyrdom -
seems forbidding and austere; but the two photographs of its
sumptuous interior, showing Pellegrino Tibaldi's frescoes of
allegories of the Liberal Arts, instantly remove any sense of
severity or restraint.
The libraries included are built from a wide range of materials:
traditional stone, wood, and plaster, as in the 16th-century
Joanina Library, at the University of Coimbra, Portugal; modern
brick, as in the Dipòsit de les Aigües Library in Barcelona (Clotet
& Ansuategúi, 1999); or steel and glass, as in the TEA Tenerife
Arts Space (Herzog & de Meuron, 2008).
The Law Faculty Library at the University of Zürich, built by
Santiago Calatrava in 2004 inside a 1909 shell, comes across as
THE Royal Portuguese Reading Room in Rio de Janeiro is almost
ecclesiastical in its magnificent neo-Gothic galleried glory; and
the Philological Library of the Free University of Berlin (Foster
& Partners, 2005) looks from the outside rather like a
half-inflated hot-air balloon.
Austria provides the most sumptuous examples (Admont, Melk, and
Vienna), full of moulded plaster, gilded finials, trompe
l'oeil, painted allegories, and cherubs at middle
It is good to find some British libraries included in the
collection, even if one of them is Charles Rennie Mackintosh's
Glasgow School of Art Library of 1909, which was destroyed by fire
earlier this year. Such a fate will, it is to be hoped, never
befall the Sir Duncan Rice Library in Aberdeen (Schmit, Hammer
& Lassen, 2012), the Library of Birmingham (Mecanoo, 2013), or
Colin St John Wilson's new building for the British Library,
completed in 1999.
This is an evocative book, which links library-building of the
past with that of the present, and encourages the reader to
consider what the future might hold. It is less academically
challenging than visually impressive, which will please some and
Editorial decisions have had to be made about which libraries
from across the world should be included in this collection of
iconic examples. Although it is not entirely clear what the remit
for inclusion was, I think that if I had been looking for another
example of an iconic British library, I would have chosen Duke
Humfrey's Library at Oxford - or perhaps the Wren Library at
Trinity College, Cambridge - in preference to the Library and Media
Centre in Peckham.
Libraries is published by Roads at £40 (Church Times
Bookshop price £36); 978-1-909399-10-5.
Dr Serenhedd James is an Hon. Research Fellow of St
Stephen's House, Oxford.