New Image of Library Buildings
Anchors for Urban Development

Stadtbibliothek Stuttgart
Stadtbibliothek Stuttgart | © Eduard Oertle -

All over the world impressive library buildings are having an invigorating effect on urban areas. In many places they have been used as an anchor point for the urban development of districts that seem to have nothing going for them – and quite successfully so.

Over the last few years a whole string of big cities, along with a few smaller ones, dotted all over the world have built new libraries and now have a new calling card. Vancouver, Seattle, Mexico, São Paulo and Tokyo are among them, not to mention Vienna, Amsterdam, Stuttgart and Birmingham. In terms of decisive urban planning public libraries have in the meantime risen to new heights – and that in these times of digitalisation.

Open spaces that have a magnetic effectFrom an architectural point of view the new buildings are outstanding, wowing visitors with their easily accessible rooms and giving them the feeling that they are in a place they would like to spend time. With their modern, non-commercial range of services and products the libraries exert an extraordinary attraction for people of all ages and from all levels of society.

One of the latest examples is the new Library of Birmingham. With its overall floor space of 31,000 square metres it is the largest public library in Europe. The new building is just a stone’s throw away from the library’s old location. Since it was opened, however, in September 2013, the number of people visiting the library every day has more than doubled. Instead of the former 4,000 visitors, there are now 10,000 people going every day to the “People’s Palace”, as its Dutch architect, Francine Houben, calls it.

Anchors for urban development

“Today libraries are the most important public buildings, just as churches used to be in the old days,” says Francine Houben. Unlike any other cultural and educational institutions libraries actually do act as a driving force in the development of inner-city areas. They serve and function as an anchor for developing something new. In several cities at the same time the library was – sometimes intentionally, sometimes not – the first and only building erected in an area that was being redeveloped. This was the case with the reconstruction of the Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam in Oosterdok, a small district in the vicinity of the railway station that used to be a transhipment depot for goods and merchandise. The library, designed by the Dutch architect and urban planner Jo Coenen, was opened in July 2007 and since then the district has developed quickly into a really lively place.

Public libraries attract motivated people, people who want to find out about things and learn, who want to exchange ideas and develop. These people spend the whole day in the district, injecting it with life – from morning till night and in most countries on all seven days of the week. The libraries serve as “crowd-pullers” for the district; all this passing trade attracts new catering outlets and other businesses.

The driving force behind upgrading districts

The fact that a library can act as a magnet even in an extraordinarily desolate environment is clearly illustrated by the example of Stuttgart. The new Stadtbibliothek on Mailänder Platz is situated on the former grounds of the railway station. The station’s planned redevelopment, however, came to a standstill due to massive public protests and demonstrations. When the library, designed by South Korean architect, Eun Young Yi, was opened in October 2011, it was more or less a solitary entity right in the middle of a huge building site. Nevertheless the library’s users poured in.

Libraries have also been used to upgrade disadvantaged districts. In Salzburg, for example, they decided not to locate the new city library, the Stadt:Bibliothek Salzburg, in the centre of town, but in a socially underprivileged area – on the terrain of the former stadium. This was not just a good move for the area, but also for the library – it now has a lot more new users. In the Brazilian city of São Paolo the Biblioteca de São Paulo was built in an area that bordered on a favela. There is now an educational campus on the very same spot in fact where the prison used to be: it is a park with several schools and the library. The library deliberately organises outdoor activities and in this way succeeds in establishing a connection with its socially problematic surrounding area.

Large-scale projects envisaged for the next few years

And the number of cities that have decided to make good use of the strong impulses generated by libraries in their urban planning projects continues to increase. Over the next few years the focus in the field of large-scale library building projects is going to be on Scandinavia. At the end of 2014 the Urban Media Space complex designed by the Danish architects Schmidt, Hammer and Lassen is to be opened in Arhus. Its library, which goes by the name of Dokk 1, is the anchor project that aims to open up an area that before was completely inaccessible and cut off from the rest of the city – a former dockland area that was full of industrial facilities. A few other giant libraries have also been planned for Norway and Finland, where they are similarly located on the water’s edge – but not as anchor projects. In these two cases they are much more intended as the highlight of a cultural cluster. In 2017 the Deichmanske bibliotek, Norway’s largest library, is to move into an impressive new building located in the up-and-coming Bjørvika district of Oslo’s dockland area; some time later Helsinki’s new Central Library is to open its doors onto the splendid vista of Töölönlahti bay.