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A volume on volumes of volumes

21 November 2014

Serenhedd James takes down a new book on libraries, and finds himself lost among the shelves


The Royal Portugese Reading Room, Rio de Janeiro, designed by Rafael da Silva de Castro (1888), was founded in 1837 by a group of immigrants to promote culture among the Portugese community. Much of it was carved in Lisbon, and brought by ship to Brazil.

The Royal Portugese Reading Room, Rio de Janeiro, designed by Rafael da Silva de Castro (1888), was founded in 1837 by a group of immigrants to prom...

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, Libraries.

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 privilege".

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 interior. 

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 untreated twigs.

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 refreshingly minimalist. 

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 distance.

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 disappoint others.

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.

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