Stuttgart City Library The Book Cube

Stuttgart City Library
Stuttgart City Library | Photo (detail): © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/T. Köster

Architecturally speaking, Stuttgart’s new city library is a real eye-catcher. Designed to appear from the outside as an austere stronghold of knowledge, inside it reveals itself to be a spectacular kingdom of books. More importantly, however, the building is a striking endorsement in an era of digitization of the physical – as opposed to the virtual – library.

Ingrid Bussmann is more than satisfied. As director of Stuttgart’s city library, she spent one and a half years planning the transfer of the library’s holdings from the much too small Wilhelmspalais to the new nine-storey building, with its 11,500 square metres of floor space, at Mailänder Platz near the main railway station: three days before the building was handed over to the public on 24 October 2011 – Germany’s nationwide “Day of Libraries” – the move was completed on schedule. Those of the 500,000 or so media which are not currently out on loan are already on the shelves.

Now Bussmann stands up in the gallery room with Stuttgart’s mayor Wolfgang Schuster and looks down at the four tapering levels. “This is an emotional moment for me”, she then says. “Even when it was empty, this space was a revelation – now, filled with books, it has finally found its true purpose.”

“A deeply democratic place”

In her inauguration speech, Bussmann will call the cube, which was designed by the Korean architect Eun Young Yi, a “grandiose statement in favour of book culture” – thereby eloquently emphasizing the fact that she regards the building not least as a bricks-and-mortar declaration of belief in the printed book and the physical – as opposed to the virtual - library.

The new building is intended to be a place of dialogue and cultures: “a deeply democratic place which facilitates personal, professional and social orientation and contributes to participation in social development”. Architect Eun Young Yi even believes that Stuttgart’s city library – as the intellectual and cultural centre of urban life – should occupy the position previously attributed to churches and palaces: a “foundation stone for a new society and a new spirit”.

Introverted building

Anyone approaching the city library for the first time on a typically misty Stuttgart morning may initially not understand what all the fuss is about. At 40 metres high and measuring 44 metres along each side, the book cube with its simple grid-like facade of exposed concrete and matt glass bricks appears cold and almost boring from a distance, standing like a grey colossus on a sort of military observation post in the midst of a giant construction site. At first, the people of Stuttgart mockingly dubbed the building the “book prison”.

Fassade der Stadtbibliothek Stuttgart bei Nacht Fotogalerie: Stadtbibliothek Stuttgart | © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/T. Köster

Now, however, this initial scepticism has given way to general enthusiasm – why this should be the case becomes clear, at the latest, when the sun penetrates through the clouds, as it is then that the surface of the dual facade gleams with gentle elegance, appearing either to glow white or to radiate a golden hue, depending on how the light falls on it. And at night the illuminated book cube generates its very own twilight blue shimmer.

The empty heart

The sense of homogeneity generated by the facade with its nine-by-nine grid pattern is also reflected in the building’s “heart”: a 3,000 cubic metre space which, apart from a small water feature at the bottom, is entirely empty and is designed to allow visitors to forget the hustle and bustle of the world outside. Above the heart is located the light, funnel-shaped gallery room with its collection of quality literature, where the books literally blend into the architecture. Library users of migrant origin will find not only German books here, but also fiction in 25 different languages.

The gallery room is reached via narrow flights of stairs which encircle the “heart”, as are the music library on the first floor (which had previously been housed in a separate building) and the lovingly designed 900-square-metre children’s library which, with its small reading rooms, colourful cushions, glass display cases and colour-coded thematic islands, contains some 60,000 books, CDs and DVDs. The children’s library even boasts a fully furnished children’s bedroom with two beds and the library’s recommended reading on its bookshelves.

Touchscreen stations and eBook downloads

Naturally, Stuttgart City Library – despite its unequivocal affirmation of faith in the printed book – does not by any means reject digital technology: after all, it is keen to be well-prepared to meet the needs of the multimedia-based “knowledge society of the future”, according to the library’s “philosophy” published by the City of Stuttgart. Interactive touchscreen stations in the entrance lobby, plus 60 research PCs, help visitors find their way around the collections, while automatic scanners allow books to be returned around the clock. Returned media are transported back to their proper home within the library by small computer-controlled electric carts which run on a system of rails.

On any of the library’s levels, visitors can also use their library card to borrow one of more than 100 laptops in order to study at the bright workplaces. What is more, eBooks, ePapers and audio files are of course available for download from the library’s website.

A universe of pleasure

It took fourteen years to turn the idea for Stuttgart City Library into reality. Director Ingrid Bussmann says that now, after three years of construction, a dream has come true for her: “A library has been built here for the people of this city, irrespective of their origin, generation or social class”. And Stuttgart’s mayor Wolfgang Schuster, who from the outset supported the construction of the library, which cost 79 million euros to build, believes that the new city library is a “place for lifelong learning, for inspiration, and for encounters between people, both young and old, from 170 different countries with their cultures, religions and values”.

Only time will tell whether all Stuttgarters will take advantage of what is on offer here. Their new city library is certainly doing its best to attract potential users with a quote from Umberto Eco, who was also invited to attend the opening ceremony: “If the library is a model of the universe, we should attempt to transform it into a universe that is appropriate for human beings. In other words, into a pleasurable library that people enjoy visiting.” This philosophy, in any case, is something which the architecture of Stuttgart’s city library has put perfectly into practice.