Stuttgart City Library Glowing cavernous temple to the printed world

The new city library designed by Korean architect Eun Young Yi is evoking polarised opinions among the people of Stuttgart.

City Library Stuttgart City Library Stuttgart | Photo: Kraufmann/Hörner, rights city department Stuttgart The go-ahead has now been given. After overcoming political obstacles the “Stuttgart 21” urban development and transport project, that is due to cost millions, is set to be implemented unless insurmountable financial problems arise. There can be no real compromise or even a low-cost version if the city’s railway system is to be turned through 90 degrees, the railhead station converted into an underground through-station, tracks re-laid beneath the surface and 150 hectares of the former track area turned into new downtown district. Work has commenced and a new city district is already developing on the site of the adjacent freight yard.

Ka’ba in the office quarter

This development is being watched with mixed feelings by the people of Stuttgart. Mainly because a bank and office quarter is not a promising sign for the much hoped for livening up of Stuttgart’s city centre. Tedious stone and glass façades are spreading fast, with practically nothing that stands out to catch the eye – apart from this fascinating Ka’ba, this mighty cube structure that is currently looking a little lost on its own, due to the fact that the surrounding projects have not been built yet. To establish a significant public function in the new quarter, the City of Stuttgart chose this site for the planned new city library. Open to the public, the library is aimed to attract people from other city districts and form a nucleus of urban living.

Open in all four directions

It is uncertain whether it will accomplish this goal. The building appears unapproachable and introverted, not willing to merge in with its urban surroundings. Nevertheless, it opens its doors on all four sides, and that is most unusual. Ever since the late nineteen sixties, when terrorism began dominating public life in Germany, public authorities and large companies have been carrying out safety checks at the building entrances. This medieval castle approach practiced by a safety-oriented society is only reversing very gradually. The library has now freed itself of these constraints to become part of a footway network in the area, through these four entrances, and can also be easily reached using public transport.

An archaic cube that glows in blue light

It may also generate new impetus in architecture. Because the design of Korean architect Eun Young Yi emits a rare architectural splendour. This is particularly underscored at night, when the façade sections with their glass bricks and tall rectangular window openings are back-lit in blue from the inside. Blue light is unusual inside the city, it creates a cool and rather mysterious effect. The reaction of the people walking past varies from great enthusiasm to a thorough disliking. Some call it a book palace, others a book prison. In the evening the blue light installed between the outer shell and the actual inner glass façade also has an effect on the atmosphere inside the cube.

Archaic and symbolic shapes such as this cube are scarcely found in architecture today. The last architects to draw on historic architecture using such geometrical archetypes were Oswalt Mathias Ungers and Josef Paul Kleihues back in the nineteen eighties.

“Unused empty space“ as the heart of the building

The thing that distinguishes Eun Young Yi from these two architects is his feeling for space and atmosphere. After walking through an all-round foyer area the visitor enters an empty “unused“ room in the heart of the cube, that the architect calls a “negative monolith”. This square room that extends over four storeys with small window openings that lead into the surrounding library floors and a central skylight, has a meditative, almost sacral character. It is comforting and pleasing to see that a profit-oriented society still wants to afford such unused space.

Glistening white reading room

Almost more impressive still is the gallery hall situated above, that opens up like an upside down stepped pyramid towards the glass roof. It is bright and glistening white and ringed by four galleries with many stairways that connect the different levels and create an amazing architectural experience that is not to be found anywhere else in Stuttgart. Here we see children wandering upstairs and downstairs and along the galleries exploring the room and space, captivated by this fascinating building. Critics were scathing of this glistening white and criticised it for its coldness. But this feature allows the shelves of books lining the room to shine. Famous examples come to mind, such as Asplund’s spectacular public library in Stockholm, the Geistingen monastery library or the British Library with its forest of shelves.

Roof terrace with panoramic view

The design effect is amazing; but it is not an end in itself, as the “LesBar“ cafeteria on the top floor shows. Here the atmosphere is rather frosty and it is not a place that invites one to settle down for a cosy chat. If the weather is good the walkways between the two façades are a more likely place to choose, or the roof terrace itself that offers panoramic views onto the famous Stuttgart 21 construction site, the city as well as the trees and vineyards of Stuttgart’s valley basin.

This new city library is going to rank among Stuttgart’s top twelve modern architecture attractions.