Notes From The Bookshelf - The Image Syndrome In Library Structures


            Despite vast efforts by various Internet entities to eradicate the ancient medium known as a 'book', the facts speak for themselves: many more books are being printed and read today, all over the world, than in any other period of history. The ironic truth is that books have always been and still are the principal source of information for Internet sites. As long as the change is principally reflected in improved accessibility of books and the ability of the screen to portray them, the Internet will continue to serve as a medium which contributes to, but does not compete with, the status of the book.

            The value of a book as a repository of information is both useful and symbolic. Books which decorate the walls of a house also attest to the cultural level of its owners. It is difficult to imagine the walls of a lawyers office without the 'backing' of law, philosophy and art books. As for public libraries, the library is the cultural 'visiting card' of the institution, neighborhood or city. At the same time, the library building continues to serve as an archive for printed material while welcoming the innovations of progress - video, audio and internet. The main difference is reflected in the relationship between the amount of knowledge and the space required for its storage.

            The role of the library as a public building of cultural value remains unchanged. Whether the library is public, academic or private, the search for, location and acquisition of knowledge continue to serve as a source of inspiration for its design.

            One of the well-known poetic sources of inspiration for library design is the plan for renovation of the National Library of Paris, made in 1785 by Etienne-Louis Boullée. This structure reflects all of the utilitarian and symbolic aspects of the library. As a Neo-Classic structure, the universe is symbolized by a vault supported by piles of books (the work of humankind). Inside, there are very few walls; the spaces are created and organized by the bookshelves, which are manifestly accessible to all visitors to the library.

            The Swedish architect Erik Gunnar Asplund (the forerunner of international architecture in Scandinavia), who designed the Stockholm Public Library (1920-1928), created an accentuated affinity to Boullées concept of direct accessibility to the bookshelves. The first encounter with books takes place in the drum-shaped entrance hall, whose only design feature is the bookshelves. The remarkable detail of the entrance door handles emphasizes the symbolic dimension of the structure as a 'temple of knowledge'. The naked images of Adam and Eve were intended to warn readers of the transition from mundane reality to the world of knowledge.

            Boullées inspiration is given a modern spatial interpretation in the library of the Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire (1965-72) designed by Louis Kahn. The central hall of the rectangular building is totally empty and serves as a piazza, where readers are supposed (according to Kahns concept) to 'mingle and exchange knowledge'. Despite the assimilation of spaces (typical of Modernistic architects), we must not conclude that Kahn perceived reading to be a group act; quiet, individual reading areas are scattered around the public piazza. However, in line with his belief that 'a library is not a place to house books, but a place to house people who use books', he placed the user -  just as he did in other buildings -  at the center of the library.

            In his 1966 manifesto 'Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture', Robert Venturi addresses the issue of 'flowing (modernistic) space', claiming that there is a substantial difference between the inside and the outside, which are distinguished from each other by the walls of the building. Venturi proposes that this point of change should give the architect an opportunity to transform it into an 'architectural event'. Ironically, the Post-Modernistic trend, in a strange mistranslation of his words, has often transformed the mantle of buildings into something ridiculous and totally detached from their content - more of a 'catastrophic event' than anything else.

            The architectural, functional and symbolic challenge inherent in library design is focused on deciphering the proportions of its four basic components: book storage, reading areas, public spaces, and exterior. These are constantly engaged in an ambivalent relationship. On one hand, they complement each other; on the other, the function of each is almost inimical to that of the others. The useful purpose of the bookshelf is to hold books (sometimes valuable ones). From that standpoint, it is advantageous to locate the bookshelves far away from sunlight, inaccessible to readers and at a distance from the public areas. At the same time, books are the main reason for readers presence in the library, and their accessibility is a functional necessity.

            This function is well in line with the symbolic, cultural and decorative value of the bookshelf. Its presence in reading areas is likely to contribute to the neutral situation, free of environmental stimuli, required for concentration and privacy. Moreover, the presence of bookshelves, with their poetic significance as 'storehouses of knowledge', can also serve the public spaces adjacent to the reading areas -  the spaces intended for mingling, social interaction and service.

            From this point of view, public areas are vastly important, especially in the case of a complex system of spaces, as they constitute an intermediary buffer zone. The examples of Asplund and Kahn clearly indicate that correct manipulation of both the functional role and the symbolic meaning of the reading areas, bookshelves and public areas, is the key to success. This is because, while the reading and storage areas, by their very nature, are detached from the exterior, the public areas play an intermediary role within the library, and between the library and its external, architectural and natural environment. In extreme cases, such as those of libraries with transparent mantles, everything that happens in the library (especially at night) is projected directly outward and directly transmits the cultural message of the library.

            As a multipurpose microcosm, in which activities of contrasting natures take place, the library resembles an urban array with streets, squares and houses. Not in vain the urban model (adopted as early as the 1930s by Alvar Aalto) enables conceptual organization which, on one hand, reinforces its functions as a place for the acquisition of knowledge and an arena for social interaction, while on the other hand conveying symbolic cultural messages. In such an array, the public spaces serve as a 'piazza', the aisles as 'streets', and the reading areas as 'rooms'. All these are open to the unique interpretation of the architect, in accordance with the needs, the available space, and the fashions of the times.

            From the Great Library of Alexandria with its 40,000 volumes to the Central Library of Paris housing over 12 million, great changes have taken place in the nature of this cultural structure, whose design is almost always reserved for leading architects. Like museum buildings (which have become a focus for visiting tourists), library buildings are not only a source of pride for the community or city in which they are located, but a visiting card for the architect who designs them. When there is also an underlying question of image -  that of the library as a public cultural object, and that of the architect as a commercial being - there is a real risk that the symbol will come to dominate the symbolized. The central question, then, is how a compromise can be reached between the differing natures of the various spaces, enabling the exploitation of their unique character to the benefit of each and every aspect of the library.




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