From Temples of the Mind to the People's Temple

In the pantheon of public building types, the library is the most dynamic in terms of its changing role and the physical manifestations that support it.  The shift in library design priorities, from a long period of stability to an era of continual evolution, mirrors the societal transformations of the information age. Many have speculated that with the advent of the internet and information technology public libraries would cease to be relevant but in reality public library usage continues to increase. The public often speak with their feet. The forces of change that are transforming usage necessitate a re-thinking of the physical structure of our libraries and we, as a practice, have been exploring the social and spatial implications of this both through our work and through our research.  In order to place in context the future of the public library, both as a building type and its social role, it is useful to examine the history of how the conventional use and practice have evolved.

Founded in the 3rd century BCE by Ptolemy I Soter, and conceived as a repository for all of the world’s knowledge, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was in a sense the “Internet” of the ancient world. From the city at the mouth of the Nile, scholars set forth to the furthest points of the Greek empire, from the Adriatic to the Indus, returning with hand written texts that would be copied at the library’s scriptorium. Over decades and even centuries, the collection grew to more than 700,000 papyrus scrolls, equivalent in today’s terms to 100,000 books - which can be accommodated on the average smart phone.

Although referred to as a library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was much more than a book repository. Because its collection was vast and many of its scrolls unique, it became a meeting point for scholars from many countries. As such, the library was a prototype for what in later centuries would become the university campus. It contained not only the collection itself, for the first time catalogued by subject, but also meeting rooms, lecture halls and residential accommodation for visiting scholars and researchers. Among those who spent time at the library were Euclid and Archimedes. According to Ismael Seragelbin, Director of the Contemporary Biblioteca Alexandrina:

“Members of that remarkable community of scholars mapped the heavens, organized the calendar, established the foundations of science and pushed the boundaries of our knowledge. They opened up the cultures of the world, and established a true dialogue of civilizations. To this day it symbolizes the noblest aspirations of the human mind, global ecumenism, and the greatest achievements of the intellect.”[1]

Implicit in Seragelbin’s assessment is the idea that for the ancient Greeks, the advancement of knowledge was a collective endeavour. This is an early recognition of the importance of social interaction in the expansion and dissemination of knowledge. Working together, the keenest minds in philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and other disciplines would further their understanding of the world and the place of humankind within it.

The Greeks believed that the source of inspiration in the arts, sciences and literature came from the heavens, specifically the nine goddess daughters of Zeus, known collectively as the ‘Muses’.  Perceiving it to be a shrine to knowledge, the name they gave to the Biblioteca Alexandrina was ‘Temple of the Muses’. Although there are no archaeological remains or other records of the building, historians believe that the collection was stored in a structure that resembled a Classical Greek temple with an exterior colonnade and a single interior space lined with shelves. This model, in which the imperatives of the collection determined the structure and organization of the building, was repeated across Asia Minor, first by the Greeks and later by the Romans.

Dating from the 2nd century CE, the Library of Celsius (pictured in the cover photo), built by the Romans at Ephesus  in modern day Turkey, is the best preserved of the libraries of the Classical Age. As inheritors of the Greek temple model, the Romans raised the building on a plinth of nine steps and articulated the symmetrical facade with columns of the Composite and Corinthian orders. Following the basilica form of other public buildings of the Roman world, the library had three aisles, the central one terminating in a semicircular apse. The colonnaded interior measured 17 x 11 metres and functioned as a single space, with shelves for 12,000 texts - some now inscribed on parchment.

With their sophisticated network of roads and engineering infrastructure, the Romans brought to their provincial cities some of the comforts of Rome itself. The construction of libraries in places such as Ephesus confirms that they were also interested in disseminating and assimilating knowledge throughout the empire. The fall of the Roman Empire in the early 5th century CE saw the loss of many public institutions, including libraries, and (particularly in Western Europe) a fragmentation of the knowledge base so painstakingly acquired over the past centuries.

What records remained were held mostly by religious orders, and throughout the medieval period the Catholic Church used that exclusive knowledge to consolidate its own political power. For several centuries, it resisted the translation of the Bible from Latin - the language of clerics - into the language of the common people. Such translations were eventually completed in the early 15th century CE and, with the invention of the printing press, these translations could be widely distributed.

At much the same time, the flowering of the Italian Renaissance ushered in a new era of cultural development and exchange. Prominent families such as the Medicis and the Forzas, whose fortunes derived from various business ventures, competed with one another to show that they were no longer mere merchants, but sophisticated and cultured members of the intelligentsia. In 16th century Florence, the Medici Pope Clement VII commissioned none other than Michelangelo to design a library to house the family’s collection of 15,000 manuscripts and other historic texts.

Known as the Biblioteca Medici Laurenziana, the library was constructed in the cloister of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, in Florence, Italy. The upper level reading room is preceded by a grand, vertically proportioned vestibule most of which is taken up by a sculptural and distinctly mannerist triple flight staircase. The reading room, 45 metres long and 10 metres wide, has rows of benches arranged on either side of a central aisle, and lit by side windows placed within the regular grid of recessed columns.  This was a private institution, certainly not available to the average Florentine citizen.

In a similar fashion and grander still was Philip II of Spain's’ library at the palace of El Escorial outside Madrid. Designed by Juan de Toledo and Juan Herrera in the late 16th century, it too has a reading room with a central aisle, but in this case the reading desks are flanked by the shelves containing the collection. This ‘Long Room’ configuration remained popular into the 18th century where it was used again in Thomas de Burgh’s magnificent library at Trinity College Dublin. Completed in 1733, the original Long Room was a single storey space with a central aisle flanked by bookshelves. By the mid 19th century, the collection had expanded to the extent that it became necessary to raise the ceiling to create a second storey gallery. The now vaulted space, at almost 65 metres in length, remains one of the most impressive libraries in the world. Here, as in the earlier examples, the books are celebrated and act of collecting defines the spatial characteristics.

The modern public library, with its broader and more inclusive social role, began in England with the passing of the ‘Public Libraries Act’ in 1850. This was one of many significant social reforms in the mid-19th century, starting with the ‘Factories Act’ of 1833 and continuing through to the ‘Elementary Education Act’ of 1870 that introduced free and compulsory education for all children aged 5 to 13. Although the ‘Public Libraries Act’ gave local authorities the power to create free public libraries, only the largest were able to raise the capital necessary to create new facilities.

Thus the spread of ‘public’ libraries throughout the United Kingdom (and the English speaking world) relied heavily on the generosity of philanthropists like the Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Between 1883 and 1929 Carnegie funded the construction of more than 2500 public libraries, most in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, but also in other parts of the world. They took many forms and adopted a number of Classical and Revivalist styles according to the taste of the local community, and while the underlying social intention had changed, their form and organization remained tied to their primary function as storage of books.

Deviations from the rigid rectilinear geometry inherited from the Greeks and Romans were rare, although libraries organized on a circular plan do occur at intervals. Most famous of these is the British Museum Reading Room of 1857, designed by Sidney Smirke, and located in the museum’s great court. This became the inspiration for the Canadian Library of Parliament in Ottawa, completed in 1876 to a design by Thomas Fuller and Chillion Jones. This neo-gothic design, a masterpiece of early Canadian design, includes 16 exterior flying buttresses and a vaulted reading room lined with bookshelves and featuring an exposed wood structure and paneling.

Similarly, in the early 20th century, Erik Gunnar Asplund placed a circular reading room at the centre of his Stockholm Public Library (pictured above). The symmetrical plan with radiating wings was classically inspired, but in the emerging culture of Modernism, he chose to remove the central dome leaving the reading room a flat topped cylinder. Here again, the bookshelves climb the curving walls in a series of tiers, with the collection again defining the main space and the overall identity of the library.

Throughout the 20th century, Modernist libraries were designed like machines for the storage of books. From the physical dimensions of books, and the optimal spacing of book stacks, structural grids were defined and fenestration patterns determined, and from those criteria followed the form. In these buildings, the social spaces are subservient to the needs of the collection and tend to exist in remnant spaces, occupying the zones where the relentless efficiency of the optimal book stack layout is compromised or as a ring around the most efficient shelving.  Archetypal among these examples is Louis Kahn’s 1972 Exeter Library at Exeter, New Hampshire (pictured above), in which the plan is a series of three concentric squares that express the different functional spaces. The grand central reading room is flanked by balconies containing book stacks and study carrels. The building has a monumentality and sense of permanence that recalls the libraries of ancient times. Indeed Kahn himself considered his library a ‘shrine to knowledge’ much as the Greeks had done.

From the conception to the completion of the building, the collection at the Exeter Library had grown significantly, a phenomenon common until the 1980s when the introduction of microfilm made it possible to create copies of documents  and greatly reduce the storage space required for certain parts of the collection such as newspapers and journals. This trend has accelerated with digital technology, the Internet and the availability of e-books. Some predict the eventual disappearance of the book altogether, while others believe that the need and desire for physical copies of books will continue to be appealing to certain readers - especially children.

Whether a collection ultimately reduces to a fraction of its current size, or disappears altogether, it is clear that the needs of the collection should no longer dictate the architecture of libraries. In more recent projects such as OMA’s Seattle Public Library of 2004 (pictured above), the collection is consolidated to the core of the building, allowing a multitude of social spaces to be arranged loosely around it. This concept is also evident in recent work by Buffi Associes in Toulouse, France and in Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque in Japan. Likely the most dramatic example of this shifting focus on social spaces is the Rolex Learning Centre, in Lausanne Switzerland (pictured below).  Designed by Sanaa, this project consists almost entirely of informal social spaces with the collections seemingly a hindrance to the Architect’s preferred use of the space.

The paradox and the possibilities of change are also explored in Sou Fujimoto’s Musashino Art University Museum and Library in Tokyo, completed in 2013. Here Fujimoto takes the key elements of the traditional library including the books, bookshelves and the quality of light, creating a continuous spiral structure of empty bookshelves that completely envelopes the building before extending into the surrounding landscape. While this library still houses a collection of 300,000 volumes, its structure (like that of the Seattle Public Library) is designed to accommodate change without destroying the character of the architecture.

The changes in library design are taking place across the globe. While the context may vary, the path of inquiry is universal. We have studied evidence of this in new libraries in countries such as Norway, Holland, Spain and Singapore but this is only scratching the surface (Busan Public Library, Singapore pictured below).

We are also in an era where entire library systems are being renewed and in the process transformed physically, socially and operationally with noteworthy examples including City of Seattle and City of Phoenix in the United States and City of Edmonton in Canada.  It is in Edmonton that we have had the opportunity to explore the spatial implications of these changes most dramatically.

In our own work, we have moved from the conventional collection driven model as seen in the Renfrew Branch Library of 1993, through the more flexible approach taken in the Whistler Public Library of 2008, where fixed elements of the program are consolidated on the street side of the building; to our most recent work at Jasper Place and Mill Woods in Edmonton (pictured below), where social spaces are given priority and the remainder of the diminished physical collection occupy the remnant spaces and are then in turn required to define and articulate the social spaces. The central approach recognizing that as the collections reduce the importance of the social spaces remains.

If one were to imagine the ancient Biblioteca Alexandrina with its 700,000 scrolls digitized and stored on a smart phone, there would no doubt be nostalgia at the loss of the sensory aspects of accessing the information: the musty smell of aging scrolls; the anticipation as the librarian searches the shelves for the requested item; and the crackling of the papyrus as it is unrolled. (In fact it is my hypothesis that architects will be among the last to give up the physical artifact of their libraries and I am personally in that camp.)  However the desire for knowledge itself and the communal excitement of learning in a truly democratic environment will remain.  While we may have exchanged papyrus scrolls for smart phones, libraries will continue to facilitate our quest for knowledge and provide the social environment in which to pursue it. In formal terms, the future structure of libraries may be uncertain, but the continued relevance of the building type is assured for all communities and cultures. The shift in physical needs has and will continue to facilitate an expansion of the social service role, such as was recognized in England in the mid-1800s, and in the process fulfill the larger mandate of all public libraries: to contribute to building citizens and their communities.


Article originally published in PLACES: Public Architecture by hcma.