Steffen Lehmann: "The library is more alive than ever!"

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to architect Steffen Lehmann about his new book Reimagining the Library of the Future, an in-depth anthology of the finest libraries.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Sep 08, 2022

Ask an architect to name one or a few favourite buildings and surely a library will be on that list. Stockholm Public Library by Gunnar Asplund, Kahn's Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire, or Seattle Central Library by Rem Koolhaas represent just a few much-celebrated imaginative examples of what a library building could be. Along with such building types as museums and theaters, libraries have become architects’ most desired public commissions to advance their thinking and experimentation. And unlike museums and theaters, libraries are free to visit and, curiously, finding one’s favourite book may be just one of a hundred different reasons for going to a modern-day library. I may step into my own neighbourhood library, the Queens Public Library at Hunters Point in Long Island City simply to extend my regular walk along the East River or to meet a friend to admire this Steven Holl-designed space together before going elsewhere. It is the intriguing section of this 2019 building that architect and educator Steffen Lehmann placed on the cover of his new book Reimagining the Library of the Future published by ORO Editions.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Centre, Berlin, Germany, Max Dudler Architects, 2009 | Steffen Lehmann | Interviews | STIRworld
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Centre, Berlin, Germany, Max Dudler Architects, 2009 Image: Courtesy of Steffen Lehmann

The compactly designed tome explores one of the most critical and central themes in contemporary architecture – the potential of public space within buildings at a time when maintaining free access becomes more and more challenging. This extensive, well-researched, and timely compendium is highly recommended for every architect and student of architecture. Its almost 250 pages are packed with examples of historically significant and contemporary public and academic libraries, 40 recent international case studies, thorough statements by some of the leading architects, emerging trends, and explanations of how these buildings contribute to our cities’ shared civic space. The following is my conversation with German architect Steffen Lehmann, the founder and principal of Barcelona and Dubai-based design studio si_architecture + urban design and professor of architecture at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where he is also the founding director of the Urban Futures Lab. We spoke over Zoom between New York and Las Vegas, discussing libraries’ roles, their most rewarding examples, why more and more of them are being built, how libraries build communities, about the so-called death of the printed book, and that the future libraries will become hang-out destinations for everyone.

Vladimir Belogolovsky: What were some of the reasons for undertaking this ambitious book project devoted solely to libraries?

Steffen Lehmann: I have a long interest in public space and how it has been evolving. I believe it is the most important topic of our century, at a time of increased commercialisation, surveillance, and a tendency for creating privately owned public spaces. I have been writing about it for close to 30 years. Public buildings come along the public space. And the most public building of all is the library. The history of this building type is amazing, and it continues to evolve. You don’t need to buy a ticket to get in, which is different from museums or theaters. This makes libraries stand-alone, unique buildings. Centuries ago, libraries used to be parts of museums where scripts and scrolls used to be held. Then libraries transitioned into their own building type and now we can find interesting emerging trends.

VB: In the book, you mentioned that just 10-15 years ago it was proclaimed that the library was dead. That’s not what is happening today according to your findings, right?

SL: That’s exactly right. There was a fear of total digitalisation and the death of the printed book. Why would we then need libraries, right? But the opposite happened. Many more books are being published now and many more libraries are being built. The library is more alive than ever!

VB: Why do you think that’s the case? Why more and more libraries are being constructed? And will this trend continue?

SL: Libraries serve not only as depositories for books but as gathering places for local communities such as for learning, career training, and social services. Libraries are taking on new tasks all the time. And there are now libraries that challenge the threshold idea of a building by blurring interiors and exteriors, as in the case of the Helsinki Central Library Oodi designed by ALA Architects and built in 2018. Many interesting and dynamic libraries are popping up all over the world. These new buildings have new programs and new services. They are evolving. They are building blocks of healthy communities. Steven Holl calls such a block a social condenser. It is a place of equity, a community hub, an urban incubator, and an instrument for urban regeneration. Also, the just mentioned Oodi Library in Helsinki has a 3-D printing facility. These new libraries are hybrid buildings that present themselves in entirely unexpected ways. There are cinemas and libraries, housing and libraries, or even a library on top of a tram station. Libraries used to be very formal, they were very quiet places. Now some libraries have music editing studios, computer training for the elderly, language classes, pharmacies, coffee shops, and even retail.

French National Library, unbuilt proposal by Étienne-Louis Boullée, 1785 | Steffen Lehmann | Interviews | STIRworld
French National Library, unbuilt proposal by Étienne-Louis Boullée, 1785 Image: Courtesy of Steffen Lehmann

VB: Since there are so many different types of these new libraries, what are some of the main trends or categories?

SL: I would name at least three. First, there is adaptive reuse, which, of course, is the trend that we see across all building types. There are libraries that used to be churches or factories, for example. Second, these libraries are advanced in terms of the latest sustainable technology and green features. These buildings have roof gardens, courtyards, vertical gardens, and so on. And finally, we see the emergence of what I just mentioned, hybrid programs, including the interesting type that emerged in Chicago, called co-location where they combined public libraries with housing for seniors. There we have lots of benefits from sharing these programs – from land acquisition to co-hosting various facilities for the local community. And there is a new project now being proposed in Las Vegas where a library will be part of an art gallery. So, co-location is an interesting variation of the hybrid library model. And half of many of the new libraries are public spaces, so they are very popular with people who want to browse books, read a magazine, or simply use free Wi-Fi or the Internet.

In a way, libraries are going back to fulfilling the ideal of the never built 1785 proposal by Étienne-Louis Boullée for the French National Library. Inspired by grand classical forms, his vast barrel-vaulted reading room was a vision of a huge meeting place on a colossal, almost urban scale. It seems to be the right visionary proposal for the 21st century. So, we need libraries not because we have so many books to display, but because we need to build and fix communities and go against the trend of commercialising and privatising public spaces. I believe we need new truly public spaces and new combinations of various programs to come together in new ways. This is where a lot of innovation impulses come from. 

VB: You speak very passionately about libraries. Have you personally worked on these projects as an architect or explored them with your students?

SL: I have been working on libraries for many years ever since I was a young architect working at the offices of James Stirling in London and Arata Isozaki in Tokyo. I was always fascinated by this building type. And with my students, I have had long discussions about libraries and how we can rethink the notion of a public building. There is a rich architectural history that one can learn from libraries.

  • Seattle Central Library, USA, Rem Koolhaas of OMA, 2004 | Steffen Lehmann | Interviews | STIRworld
    Seattle Central Library, USA, Rem Koolhaas of OMA, 2004 Image: Courtesy of Steffen Lehmann
  • Biblioteca Vasconcelos Public Library, Mexico City, Mexico, Alberto Kalach & TAX, 2006 | Steffen Lehmann | Interviews | STIRworld
    Biblioteca Vasconcelos Public Library, Mexico City, Mexico, Alberto Kalach & TAX, 2006 Image: Courtesy of Alberto Kalach

VB: You already referred to the recently built Oodi Library in Helsinki. Any other experimental library that you would suggest looking at for inspiration?

SL: Of course, the Seattle Central Library by Rem Koolhaas was built already in 2004, but still should be explored as one of the most groundbreaking buildings of our time. It is a fantastic flexible public space designed as a public circulation loop. It was conceived as a book spiral, a kind of expandable information warehouse where all possible forms of media, both new and old, are presented in the most innovative ways. And the way it is integrated into the city is quite radical and special. Then the most amazing architects who actively work on libraries are Snøhetta from Oslo and New York, Mecanoo from the Netherlands, and fjmtstudio from Australia. These three offices have done more libraries than anyone else. Another amazing library is Biblioteca Vasconcelos in Mexico City designed by Alberto Kalach and built in 2006. The city wanted to build three small libraries, but he suggested putting them all into a single labyrinthian mega space defined by a 250-meter-long superstructure with bookcases suspended overhead, all interconnected by glass floors and stairs and surrounded by a lush botanical garden. I particularly like how daylight is filtered into this space and how circulation is organised, both contribute to a very theatrical experience just by being there. 

Sendai Mediatheque, Japan, Toyo Ito & Associates, 2001 | Steffen Lehmann | Interviews | STIRworld
Sendai Mediatheque, Japan, Toyo Ito & Associates, 2001 Image: Courtesy of Steffen Lehmann

VB: Any interesting discoveries you made while working on this book or highlights that future readers may be particularly interested in?

SL: I would once again go back to Helsinki. Its library is such a fantastic place and I have to point out that the Finnish constitution declares that every citizen has the right to use a public library. Finland was ranked the world’s most literate nation according to a 2016 study. Going over so many examples one will realise that the most fascinating libraries are those where three important qualities come together – expressed structure, well-handled and filtered daylight, and efficiently organised circulation. Of course, as far as making the structure a design driver of space, one of the most seminal buildings is Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque built in 2001. It is still one of the most original buildings with its highly expressed non-hierarchical organisation of spaces characterised by the fluid continuity between various programs. Since Sendai, Ito built three libraries, and each time he redefined the idea of what a library could be in his own new ways, primarily by proposing original structural concepts. These buildings are great opportunities for improving community services and putting themselves on the map, so to speak, through the use of good architecture. It is not for nothing that someone once said, “If you want to win an election, build a library!” [Laughs.]  

Tianjin Binhai New Area Library, China, Winy Maas of MVRDV, 2017| Steffen Lehmann | Interviews | STIRworld
Tianjin Binhai New Area Library, China, Winy Maas of MVRDV, 2017 Image: Courtesy of Steffen Lehmann

VB: What do you think about another trend, the notion of turning a library or bookstore into a spectacle? Such is, of course, a recently opened and much talked about library in Tianjin by MVRDV. Inserted into a huge shopping mall, this cavernous space of cascading and undulating bookshelves serves as a kind of incentive for people to come from afar. In fact, I had to stand in a long line just to get in. And the space everyone wants to see and take a selfie in is not about books at all. They merely serve a nostalgic background, represented by enlarged reproductions of the books’ spines. The space has become an entertainment destination. Is this another trend for libraries to become something else?

SL: Of course, many prominent critics jumped at the opportunities to criticise this, by the way, hugely successful, building and Instagram phenomenon. But to respond to your question, let me read you the quote from Winy Maas of MVRDV from the text he wrote for the book. After all, it is his library and I think he expressed a very optimistic thought: “We believe that the future of libraries is an intensification of all kinds of designs. To adapt to our current world, libraries will need to become almost as ubiquitous as the Internet itself: our libraries will become hang-out destinations, and our hang-out spots will become libraries.” In a way, he is talking about taking away the threshold of the library as an elite institution and turning it into an everyday place accessible to all. Libraries should become as popular as Pop Art. And what an appropriate place to put his library in a shopping mall and turn it into an island of non-consumption with nothing to buy and free access.

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