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What contemporary library design looks like at its best

Libraries as newly reimagined hubs of technology and activity continue to grow in both scale and scope, with architects and designers responding to impress.

What contemporary library design looks like at its best

Across Australia and the rest of the world, we’re witnessing a renaissance in library design. The pokey space with dusty books in a darkened corner of some school or community centre is well and truly a thing of the past. Thankfully, the traditional library typology that many of us remember from our childhoods, has evolved. Today, libraries are newly reimagined hubs of technology and activity that continue to grow in both scale and scope. These new spaces are ambitious in size and programme, with expansive areas for research and study, as well as socialising.

Current expectations amongst end users are also high and architects and designers are responding with striking interiors designed to attract a variety of different people and communities. Many of these new projects highlight the importance of multi-setting offerings to keep people engaged. They aim to reinforce the need for adaptability while sensitively instilling their interiors with a strong sense of place.

The Scroll sculpture outside of Foster and Partners’ House of Wisdom, in Sharjah, UAE,  gives it an inimitable sense of place. Photo by Chris Goldstraw

Foster + Partners’ recently completed House of Wisdom in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates’ third most populous city, is an impressive study in the library as a social hub for learning. Located across two levels, this new publishing and research-based institution conceptualises a library for the future that allows people to gather, learn and exchange ideas; promoting community engagement.

As UK-based Gerard Evenden, Senior Executive Partner – Head of Studio, Foster + Partners explains, “We integrated cultural aspects into the library experience to promote communication and the cross-fertilisation of ideas. In our experience, overlapping uses creates a richer programme that promotes learning and also gives rise to a certain flexibility that allows the building to meet future needs and changing patterns of learning. The most successful outcome is when people are able to use the building throughout an extended period of time, generating a community space that belongs to them.”

Shelves range from full height to mid and also act as partitions throughout the interior library study area of House of Wisdom. Photo by Chris Goldstraw.

Evenden and the team took advantage of the interior’s generous floor space to configure settings for study and research, talks, lectures and cafes, alongside plenty of shelves stacked with books. Shelves range from full height to mid and also act as partitions, demarcating different zones and wide circulation paths in a bright and breezy open plan. A predominantly pale timber material palette and a natural colour scheme emphasises the relaxed and informal environment that works to draw people in.

This emphasis on comfort also keeps people there. And perhaps the design’s most appealing feature, apart from the full height windows, strategically shaded with external screens and large overhanging roof, is a central courtyard. It literally brings the outside in, drawing in plenty of fresh air to cool the internal spaces, while at the same time, providing end users with a strong connection to nature.

Known as the 'interior knowledge garden', a central courtyard brings the outside in to the Sharjah House of Wisdom. Photo by Chris Goldstraw.

Known as the ‘interior knowledge garden’, a central courtyard brings the outside in to the House of Wisdom, in Sharjah, UAE. Photo by Chris Goldstraw.

The recently completed FJMT-designed UTS Central, incorporating the new UTS Library in Sydney, is no less impressive and just like House of Wisdom, works hard at being very much of its place. “We wanted to create a building that connects to Broadway and Alumni Green – UTS’ only greenspace – essentially interlocking city and campus grids,” says FJMT principal James Perry. “And the challenge in totally reimagining the UTS Library was asking what the library needed to become and subsequently determining its new role in order to maintain relevance on campus.”

The reading room of the library at UTS Central, by FJMT, is expansive and filled with light. Photo by John Gollings.

The reading room of the library at UTS Central, by FJMT, is expansive and filled with light. Photo by John Gollings.

This library occupies the building’s lower levels (which consists of a dramatic podium) and functions as the heart of the new development. It incorporates a variety of spaces for individual and group study, a learning commons, collaborative classrooms and general teaching spaces, and while it connects to the Reading Room, each level signifies a different mode of use. Spaces for collaboration are closer to ground level and the higher up, the quieter the spaces become. Perry and the team also aimed to generate as much informal space as possible without compromising the library’s collection. The ensuring spaces act as meeting points that encourage people to gather, fostering an even greater vibrant university community.

As Perry notes, “UTS Library is the real focal point of the largest and most active building on campus. It gives students and staff so many options and opportunities to make the most of their time on campus, but still maintains its essence as a place of learning, study and sharing.” Adding to the library’s dynamism is the building’s form; an imposing organically shaped structure with undulating external glass walls. They further open up the interior to the outside, putting the act of learning on show and prioritising the idea of transparency within an educational environment.

The library at UTS Central incorporates a variety of spaces for individual and group study, and each level signifies a different mode of use. Photo by John Gollings.

FJMT aimed to generate as much informal space as possible within the library at UTS Central. Photo by Nicole England.

FJMT aimed to generate as much informal space as possible within the library at UTS Central. Photo by Nicole England.

The best new contemporary library design champions multiple uses and encourages connection, whether visual or otherwise. Openness, an abundance of natural light and a variety of settings, are also integral. Ultimately, House of Wisdom and UTS Central’s successes reside in their capacity to make people feel comfortable and want to come back time and time again.


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