I’ve just spent the last few days travelling through The Netherlands and Denmark, visiting some of the best new library spaces in Europe. They all have one thing in common, they are breaking down the walls of the traditionally quiet, deferential library and opening up to becoming more experimental, collaborative and fundamentally social spaces. They’re an echo of my favourite bookshop in the world, Open House, Bangkok.

Like Open House, all three of the libraries I visited are examples of beautiful contemporary design and each has embraced the idea of the “Culture House”; a flexible, community-focused cultural hub.

I undertook the trip to see what lessons or approaches can be applied to the development of the library as a heart space at the centre of a university or school.

LocHal, Tilburg, The Netherlands
The first space is the magnificent LocHal in Tilburg, The Netherlands. Words fail me, I could have stayed for days. A conversion of an enormous decommissioned engineering works, most of the massive industrial features have been incorporated into the design. It’s a classic case of using the authenticity of the building’s character to create a stunning contemporary environment. And that’s what it is: an environment.

This is not architecture or interior design, it is the deliberate manipulation of a vast space in order to create many, many moments throughout that constantly surprise and delight you. The range of spaces and ergonomic variations for users to pick from is staggering. There are mats, pads, piles of books, beds, stools, sofas, dining areas, stairs, and on and on. It feels like the Tate Modern as a library, there are books everywhere, even in the cafe under the table. One of the library assistants told me “it’s the new town square or the physical version of the internet, a place to learn and be but actually see and meet people”.

It has a playful, relaxed and inspiring design language. Vast moving black curtains carve the space and dampen the acoustics and the changing rhythm of the design from one space to the next is just wonderful, from rooms lined with brightly coloured rope to ceilings made from books. There are the required tables for working but mostly it’s a bench that runs around a vast central gap that holds the main theatre.

LocHal delivers a totally new kind of civic space. It’s open and inviting while relaxed and – dare I say? – cool. It feels like the kind of place you get when a city turns an old redundant commercial district into a new bar and restaurant centre, like the Meat Packing districts in New York and Copenhagen or the Northern Quarter in Manchester. It has more in common with warehouse loft apartments than libraries.

Dokk1, Aarhus, Denmark
This impressive new city Bibliotek is a master stroke of town planning and coordination; unashamedly bold in its design and coordinated with the tram and bus stations and car parking below. It has wonderful views across the harbour, you feel relaxed just approaching it. The atmosphere inside is relaxed too, with people sitting on the floor and sleeping on sofas.

A staggering open staircase/stage creates a link between the two huge open floor plates; it’s an expansive, high quality, modern library. There are lots of books on shelves and seats of all shapes and sizes, with tables small and large scattered throughout.

There are the new hygiene factors of a cafe, meeting rooms, and exhibition and breakout spaces, but also some new innovations: a co-working space, a maker space, an acoustically enclosed children’s play area and a full working TV studio.

I do wish it was in my town but apart from the aforementioned spaces there was not much more in terms of innovation. Nevertheless, it sets a high standard in modern civic library design.

Tingbjerg Bibliotek and Kulturhus, Tingbjerg, Copenhagen, Denmark
The final stop was a district of Copenhagen called Tingbjerg, in order to visit a brand-new school library that has been created to be a centre for both the community and the school. It’s tiny in comparison to Dokk1 but contains all the same services.

It obviously had a much smaller budget but the radical nature of the architecture and the internal spaces it creates are dramatic. This narrow plot extends up by four narrowing floor plates, with one side of the building creating an angled atrium all the way up to a reading level at the top.

On the ground floor is a cafe and multi-use space, which was being used for dance practice while I was there. The middle levels provide meeting rooms, workshop areas, break out spaces and ICT stations, free for all the community to use.

As it’s a school library, the book collection is quite small, so the place feels more like a facility of activities than a library. This is reflected in its “Bibliotek/Kulturhus” status; it has the
vibe of a small local arts theatre venue meets a cool urban co-working space.

One lesson to take away is that it does have sound issues. If someone is noisy on one floor it travels through the whole building; a potential problem for people who are trying to study or read on other floors. However, the openness is its best feature so there are bound to be compromises. In addition, there are quite basic materials throughout and the chairs are not comfy enough in my view but it’s clearly a well-used and -liked local amenity.

Lessons Learned
LocHal, in particular, provides a blueprint of a ‘sticky campus’ for universities; a space that answers every need so students stick around and don’t need to go off-campus for somewhere to chat, study, eat or relax.

Whilst not everyone has an old engineering factory in their back pocket, the idea of this space and its relaxed rhythm creates a human experience that we would usually connect with leisure environments such as restaurant and bars. And that’s why it works. They are the places designed to encourage people to stay and have a good time.

Many libraries (and universities) seem to end up with a ‘civic’ quality to them; a faceless or characterless corporate design. This is driven by compromise and I think it’s the death knell to any environment design. You can easily end up with a room full of grey furniture on wheels, delivering all the charm of a cheap accountant’s meeting room.

Why do we let the design of spaces such as libraries, universities and schools fall so short of what human beings actually like? As I was walking through Schiphol on my way back, I noticed that the area where you walk to the gates has the same ‘civic’ quality – easy to clean and maintain, made from hard wearing materials. However, when you get a place for people to engage with, like a restaurant, bar or shop, all of a sudden the materials go soft, the colours warm up the lighting goes down. It’s simply more comfortable. And that’s what people want when they stop somewhere. Why is this approach to the design of an environment only applicable to purely social spaces? The same people are occupying both spaces simultaneously all day anyway so why not design them from the same perspective?

I often find that universities and schools struggle to understand this need. While architecturally dynamic, the spaces they build are often maintenance- and management-lead. But if we look at where students choose to go when they leave these ‘non-stick’ campuses – the Northern Quarter, Shoreditch, environments designed for them by people who know what they like – then we can see that the design of these alternative spaces is driven by the creation of atmosphere and not by maintenance. It’s about much more than interior design, it’s about what’s going on, the music, the food, the people, the vibe. This kind of design doesn’t really have a name. It’s social design, environment design, experience design, human space design…

As many new workplaces are following this multifaceted design approach, we know it can be made to be practical and cost effective for university budgets yet still inspiring. And thanks to the example set by Open House, we also know it can be done in a new building while being as warm, rhythmic and enchanting as LocHal.

Sticky campuses should take note and start with a sticky library. Not literally sticky though.

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