In a new column for The Guardian, Ken Worpole, the author of Contemporary Library Architecture (Routledge), shares his thoughts about urban library design.
Why are libraries back on the urban agenda? Increasing numbers of people are now engaged in some form of further or higher education, and need study space and access to the internet, which many cannot find at home. The rise of single-person households in city centres – in some European capitals now approaching 50% of households – means that libraries increasingly act as a meeting place or home from home, as they do for migrants, refugees and even tourists. The idea of the library as “the living room in the city” was first promulgated in 1970s Scandinavian library design, as architects responded to users’ wishes to stay longer, have a coffee, and enjoy storytelling sessions, lunchtime concerts or attend book-reading groups. Visiting Örnsköldsvik library in northern Sweden, close to the Arctic Circle, I noticed users brought their slippers and a packed lunch. This new understanding of the library space is formalised, for example, in Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle library, where three of the five floors are designated as The Reading Room, The Living Room and The Mixing Chamber.
The revived global enthusiasm for libraries – of which Seattle is perhaps the most ambitious – originated in north America in the 1990s. Having overseen the costly failure of iconic museum and gallery projects – ostensibly built to put cities on the map – politicians realised they got more bang for their buck if they spent the money on a state-of-the-art library. When the Nashville library opened in 2001, inscribed above the door was the maxim: “A city with a great library is a great city.” Historian Shannon Mattern has recently devoted a whole book to depicting the rise to prominence of the new downtown library in American civic life.
Read the Complete Column
See Also: Citatons for Two Books by Shannon Mattern