Monday, September 1, 2014

Books, Illuminated | A Review of the Amsterdam Public Library

The largest library in Europe is more than just a library. The Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam (OBA), or Amsterdam Public Library, offers an aesthetic experience with its elegant architecture, multi-functional floors and clever play of light that sets it apart from other modern public libraries in the world.

Located on the Oosterdokseiland, the library greets its visitors with a monumental facade that emanates modernism with a twist. A triangular point of the canopy points outward from the 40-meter-high top floor, framing the building with a geometric sharpness typical of contemporary urban design. Supporting this canopy are two walls with asymmetrical widths, a wider one on the left and narrower on the right, both of which are constructed from natural stone. The grayish palette of shell limestone lessens the industrial effect of glass windows, lending the OBA a mixture of modernism and nostalgia. While many of the buildings next door to the OBA boasts a definitively steely look of metropolitan architecture -- turquoise  glass walls with a concrete grid of metallic bars -- the OBA seems nicely nested within the timeless embrace of limestone, a material consistently used in structures since the age of classical architecture. According to Jo Coenen & Co., the main architecture firm for the OBA, shell limestone is picked to specifically harmonize well with wood and concrete, age well with time, emphasize the durability of the OBA's design and accentuate the sculptural and monumental impression of the library.

Upon entrance, visitors have the sensation they have been transported to a futuristic cultural center rather than a typical reading zone. The key producer of that otherworldly feel is light, including both artificial lighting, which comes from the central escalator, and natural lighting, which comes from large windows surrounding the building. The molecule-shaped lights that suspend above the basement floor also provide an extra source of white light as well as adding an ultra-futuristic vibe to the ground floor space. Walking into the hall, one would be struck by the openness of the interior space thanks to the lack of compartmentalization and richness of lighting. As we make our way past the reception area, we notice how each floor could be seen from the central spot where the escalator is located. Bearing the floor number and function, two vertical cascades of glowing white cubes jut out in parallel from each level, so that as the escalator goes up, we see a double illuminating line of cubic boxes that might remind some of us of a James Turrell 2004 light piece called Afrum I. Playing with the idea that light creates volume, Turrell manipulated two panels of light into a 3D illusion of a shimmering cube hanging midair in front of a wall. Just as Turrell challenged the viewers' conventional perception of dimension and form with his light sculpture, the OBA interior designers invite us to contemplate how form and function as well as number and text could powerfully cooperate in an artful manner that contributes to the fascinating height and openness of the library.

Glowing rectangular boxes that line each floor

Afrum I (White), 1967. Projected light, dimensions variable. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Panza Collection, Gift 92.4175 © James Turrell. Installation view: Singular Forms (sometimes repeated), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, March 5–May 19, 2004. Photo: David Heald

Hanging lights in the children’s level

One of the OBA's many gems is the basement level, reserved for children yet fascinating to adults all the same. Leaning over the staircase from the ground floor, visitors can view the intelligently designed ecosystem of bookshelves, colorful illustrations, playhouses in the shape of a pencil and as aforementioned, the array of magnified molecules lit-up from above. Kids can take breaks from parents diligently reading them stories, roam around, appreciate a gigantic tree house of personified mice, gaze at a life-size polar bear or simply marvel at the lab-like atmosphere of the lights. Each bookshelf flaunts an elegant semi-circular shape that opens to a different direction, turning the space into a labyrinth in which walls are made up of an endless supply of books. There is one shelf with a swirling staircase in its center leading up to a flat space at the top, which elevates children much closer to the hanging lights. From this platform, they can get a glimpse of the adults within glass cubicles on the ground floor terraces who often look completely caught up in whatever they are perusing on their screen. As children jump with exhilarating thrill on this elevated book-tree, the static and serious-looking adults upstairs could look slightly silly by contrast.

Semi-circular bookshelves adds spatial movement around the vertical columns

But grown-up visitors also have the capability to not look occupied, mildly stressed out or unambiguously grumpy with their wifi and desktops; this is because the OBA offers such a wide variety of activities and experiences. It features a cafe on the first floor and a rooftop restaurant (“La Place”) that panoramically looks out to the southern urban expanse of Amsterdam. Visitors can also observe art almost anywhere in the building. Currently, to the left of the ground hall, there is an exhibition named I Kiss The World by Martha van der Bly and Simon Annand, showcasing portraits of people from different parts of the world who serendipitously met, kissed and had their identities transformed by that experience. If you prefer contemporary fashion to a political photography exhibition about fluid global identities, you might be more interested in looking rightward to the first floor where young fashion designer Marga Weimans is presenting her collection Debut with the themes of identity, technology and beauty. This is an OBA exhibition in conjunction with the Groninger Museum, a part of the OBA's tradition of collaborations with other museums such as the Rijksmuseum, Museum Beelden aan Zee and Museum de Fundatie.

Joop Paul, a director at Arup, the firm that was responsible for the OBA's lighting, structural and mechanical engineering, said that the OBA is not a book library but an "information library." It offers a multimedia floor, fiction books, a theater, museum spaces, restaurants, reading pods and a whole lot of other activities, and yet it does not feel chaotic. Jo Coenen as well as the engineers at Arup made sure that the building feels both intimate and open, offering a counterpoint to the usually weighty clutter of urban lifestyles. The electrical system is stored beneath the raised floor and therefore entirely hidden from sight. Similarly the air-conditioning runs along the voids and thus requires no extra air ducts that might ruin the seamless design of the building. All there is to take in is a beautifully luminous space without distracting installations. An Arup designer compared the lighting to "icing on the cake" for the building because it is the final touch that brings out the intelligent architecture of the OBA and gives it an aesthetic magnificence rarely found in modern public structures.

Glass floor by Peter Zimmerman

As a public library and a part of the Oosterdokseiland development, the OBA was required to harmoniously fit in with its surroundings. Despite such a constraint, Jo Coenen still managed to create a vision for the OBA as a free-standing work of public art. The OBA's height does not exceed the average level of the townscape's penultimate floors, but since there is a visible recession in the facade, coupled with the flipped L of limestone frame in the front, the OBA stands out as Amsterdam's proud landmark in this new urban strip of the city. A visitor scribbled in a notebook of commentary near the OBA's entrance, "Beautiful building. A true asset for Amsterdam." Indeed, this public library does succeed in representing the city's affinity for clever design and multifaceted cultural experiences, whether it is the tranquility of the library's body of books or the Peter Zimmerman colorful artwork at the bottom of the escalator or the abrupt set of light arrows that descend from the top floor ceiling. The team of designers and engineers from Jo Coenen & Co. as well as Arup deserve an A-plus for having fulfilled the city's assignment beyond expectations, "To accommodate the vast array of books representing many centuries of our culture in a multi-functional public building designed to be an exciting, adventurous place to visit." A job well done.

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