2021 10 07 The Library of the Future

Francine Houben and 'The Library of the Future'

07.10.2021 - Publications

The Library of the Future must be for the people. It must offer everyone, whatever their age or background, the knowledge, skills and paths they need to find their own future.

At Mecanoo, we have been re-inventing the library ever since the 1990s, when we designed the Library of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. It opened libraries to a future of new forms, but we also work with historic forms, such as New York’s world-famous library, the Stephen A Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue. We are re-engineering this grand, glorious beaux-art building from 1911 for 21st century crowds and study. These are research libraries, but what about circulating libraries? In 2021 we also created new central libraries in New York, Washington and the Taiwanese city of Tainan — people’s libraries.

Mecanoo’s architecture does not have a hallmark style, but it is always driven by our philosophy of focussing on People, Place, Purpose and Poetry. Our architecture has a humanist approach. When we designed the Library of Birmingham in England, I spent time observing library users, and saw that the library must be for the whole community. Inclusivity must be built in. Washington’s Martin Luther King Jnr Memorial Library (MLKL) and New York’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL) are designed to plug into the incredible energy, diversity and hope that the people of those cities have.

Next, we come to place. I always say libraries are the cathedrals of our time. Cathedrals were once at the heart of city life, where people gathered and gossiped and traded. Libraries must be animated by civic life too. Lobbies, landings and even stairs can be social attractors. At Birmingham, Washington and New York, we have made roof gardens open to all. And with dramatic shapes, such as the upside-down ziggurat shape of Tainan Library or SNFL’s Wizard’s Hat, we bring excitement to the whole city.

We need libraries because their purpose is to provide wisdom. Life-long learning starts with children, so play is designed in for them. For teenagers, dedicated areas reflect their culture. To serve the whole community, we provide facilities like auditoria or studios or rehearsal spaces. It is not just by reading or watching that you learn. Workshops with equipment to learn skills should be in the library of the future. The MLKL has a big making space — somewhere where you can make noise! A library’s purpose also extends to encouraging healthy lifestyle. Why not make stairs visible and attractive to encourage people to use them instead of elevators? Why not bring nature to the people, for example with roof gardens?

Poetry in architecture is intangible, but a building needs an emotional dimension beyond the program it delivers. It must have a magic in the combined effect of all its design elements. Then, the library becomes pleasure — a pleasure that carries everyone’s future.

Francine Houben

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