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Looking at inspirational public libraries

The Library in the Museum of Finnish Architecture, OMAH Architecture Library in Jakarta and Helsinki Central Library illustrate the paradigm shift in library design today.

by Apurva Bose Dutta Jun 03, 2019

The word library conjures images of myriad shelves of books, and readers scrolling to find their titles on them. However, with the advent of digital technology and its advantages of accessibility and easy sharing of information, these houses of literature have been relegated to being conceptualised as bookless libraries, as noticed in a few in the US. That is a rather miserable way of bidding farewell to a media, that too one, which really should be revived! Question voracious readers, and they would vouch that reading a book is sacrosanct, and it creates an experience that is hard to replicate through the digital platform. While the revival of books must command our attention today, equally essential is the revival of library spaces and their architecture that should now cater to services, which are much beyond only the act of reading.

In the midst of this, a few public libraries globally, are standing upright as exemplary of how innovative conceptualisation, can not only bring back the pure joy of holding a book in your hand, but also offer a community space. A few of these libraries interestingly are devoted to books on architecture and design. Whether it is their designs or concepts, they are planned to absorb and gel with the book culture, and not overwhelm and diminish the aura created by them. Of note, is also how the diverse context for all of them is reflective in their responsive design and their idea of what a public library should be.

Museum of Finnish Architecture

Located in Helsinki, this is globally the second oldest museum to be dedicated to architecture. It houses a very modestly designed library with approximately 30,000 titles on architecture, community planning, landscape planning, design, art history and history, and a gigantic collection (9000 titles) on Finnish Architecture. In its archives, the library also stocks material related to the architects studies, work or private life, most of them being donations by the individual architects or their foundations. The space is well-lit, clean and straightforward. Planned across two floors, with shelves arranged in straight lines, this could well be the reference example for a standard library. What sets it apart is the touch of Finnish Culture experienced through Finland's much loved Artek furniture and lighting, and the neo classical architecture of the museum in which it is housed. Being a part of the museum, this library has been witnessed to a number of in-house publications, lectures, exhibitions, focusing thus on the rethinking of services that a routine public library is generally associated with.

  • Museum of Finnish Architecture, Helsinki Photo Credit: Apurva Bose Dutta
  • Museum of Finnish Architecture, Helsinki Photo Credit: Apurva Bose Dutta
    Museum of Finnish Architecture, Helsinki Photo Credit: Apurva Bose Dutta

OMAH Architecture Library

Located in Jakarta, this structure stands as a rare example of a public library established by an architect in his own studio space. With a stupendous collection of close to 1500 titles, mainly about architecture, this gem has to be credited to the efforts of architect and owner, Realrich Sjarief. Though situated within his office space, the library is open to the public. Hosting regular talks, presentations and discourses on architecture from all over the world, OMAH has extended itself from being a library to becoming a community. A lot of focus is laid on documentation of these events to further share them and disseminate knowledge about architecture and city-building.

Part of an award-winning building called The Guild, which also houses Sjareif's office and residence; the design of the library has been very skilfully secluded in order to maintain public access. This is achieved by sinking it from the perimeter area; the lower level space additionally offering better maintenance of the books by keeping them away from the heat. The narrow library space rests under a coffered slab that lends a certain depth to the space. Besides being a splendid example of architectural craftsmanship, the warmth of the subtle colours and the lightness of the materials render the space as a relaxed, peaceful sanctuary for books.

  • OMAH Architecture Library, Jakarta Photo Credit: Apurva Bose Dutta
  • OMAH Architecture Library, Jakarta Photo Credit: Apurva Bose Dutta

Helsinki Central Library - OODI

Over the last few months, this newly opened facility has been credited for offering a renewed definition to public libraries. The city's latest architectural marvel completed in bold, sweeping forms in wood, glass and steel faces some of the most prominent landmarks of the city through a fascinating double-curved façade. The library is lauded for presenting a social space to its residents through a design that is an ode to Finland's culture, equality and freedom of expression. Draped in natural light, the three storeyed structure radiates so much warmth that during the recent icy cold winters, OODI doubled up as a living room for its residents. ALA Architects worked on a program that would adapt to changing requirements, and thus included spaces for a café, movie theatre as well as state-of-the-art studios. The emphasis has been on physical books, with no specific space allocation for a digital library.

  • OODI: Helsinki Central Library Photo Credit : Tuomas Uusheimo; Courtesy ALA Architects
  • OODI: Helsinki Central Library Photo Credit : Tuomas Uusheimo; Courtesy ALA Architects
  • OODI: Helsinki Central Library Photo Credit: Tuomas Uusheimo; Courtesy ALA Architects

Though there have been some fascinating examples of the reassessment of the concept of public libraries globally; it is important to consider the elements that make up a library space. Sensitivity to the experience and a culture that a library commands, a collection that astounds, and an architecture that adapts to the changing requirements of what a library should offer, is what globally libraries should be aiming at. A case in point could be the two public libraries in China, the Tianjin Binhai Library and the recently opened YJY Maike Flagship Store (conceived as a library and gallery) in Xian. Overwhelming for many, one would probably like to visit them before concluding whether the architecture is subtle enough to acquire the kind of restraint that a library should perhaps inherently possess.

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About Author

Apurva Bose Dutta

Apurva Bose Dutta

A trained architect, Apurva is an author and architectural journalist. She offers an experience of 14 years of collaborating and writing for global multimedia publications, firms and organisations related to the architecture, design and building industry.

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