This is my final blog post from the Liber LAG conference I attended and will be a ‘building-focused’ piece encapsulating the uniqueness of three Libraries I visited during the trip.

Bibliotheque Nationale Universitaire (BNU) Strasbourg

The BNU is the national university of Strasbourg and showcases the significant renovation of the original building which was built between 1888 and 1895. It is the second largest public library in France and holds the legal deposit for the region. Located opposite the Rhine Palace, many of the buildings in the area were built by the Rhine emperor as a show of power, of which the Library’s façade is a show of architectural power in its own right.

The redevelopment of the Library involved the complete rip out and replacement of 90% of the interior, an interior that had major structural problems following the rebuilding of it after a direct bomb strike during WW2. The project was used to completely modernize the Library; it now boasts 700 reading seats, a café, auditorium, exhibition hall and a significant special collections area.

The concept of the redevelopment starts at the entrance where the designers wished users to be able to enter the dark ‘entrance of ignorance’ into the ‘light of knowledge’, the central staircase (an amazing element on its own) creating a towering heart in the middle of the building. This staircase was the architects showpiece and as they weren’t allowed to do much with the façade (due to it’s protected status), this focal point certainly makes an impression on the inside! Supported by a series of load bearing wires, all 420 tonnes of the copula that frames the pinnacle of the staircase allows light to flood into the central atrium.


A brilliant design element was the decision to use Finland Oak flooring, not only for its aesthetic value but for the fact that it provides amazing acoustic insulation – it was so effective, and I wish you were able to walk on it too, in order to experience what I did! The auditorium is popular for a range of activities, from concerts to plays, meetings and seminars. The finish is exceptional with (again) incredible acoustic insulation, high quality seating (with power) and integrated barrier matting (a very nice touch!). The Library reopened in November 2014 at a cost of 65m euros and a series of grey boundaries in the floor demarcate were the original walls once stood. The building is also supported by a series of deep pillars that protect the structure from the risks posed by the region being susceptible to earthquakes.

There is complete silence throughout the building with very little enforcement. The wayfinding and signage is well-designed and ‘clean’; little text, sharp lines and good use of pictures. This is a very disciplined and scholarly library. The large numbers of users present a feeling of communality but each person is deeply focused in their work. At the time of visiting, the Library was very busy as many people were preparing for exams, but I believe this is one of the best periods to see such a space and observe its effectiveness. As mentioned during our visit, “users respect the building and the building respects them”, and this was completely accurate (pic 13).

The reading room is completely separated from the rest of the building and provides a different, appropriate environment. The chairs and desks are given more space and the surfaces are clear of any distractions.

The Library and design team wanted to provide an opportunity for users to view their special collection in the best way possible, which led to the development of small museum spaces. These areas go beyond any normal notion of such spaces, but in my view it wasn’t a museum either. The area is designed not only to store the collections correctly but to also display them correctly too, and I believe this is one of the most special parts of this building. Five interlinked rooms contain well curated items that span millennia; from coins to maps, furniture to Egyptian artifacts. The last of these spaces is a double height room that contains the history of the Library building, artifacts from  Jacques Maritain’s collection and a small exhibition about Joseph Arthur de Gobineau. I felt incredibly privileged to see this entire area and the collections it held. One of Library’s aims of this space was to show that they have much more then books and I believe they have far surpassed this aim; they are much more than just a library and the entire redevelopment is testament to this.

Abbey of St Peter’s Library – Black Forest


We had the very special opportunity of visiting the former St Peter monastery in the Black Forest, of which the following blog provides a nice overview of its history. However more than the abbey alone, we had the privilege of seeing the Library in the interior of the site. Although we didn’t learn much from the building itself, this visit was certainly one for the soul.

Photograph opportunities were limited in order to pay respect to the site, although it was essential for me to capture some images to share with you the immense beauty of what I witnessed. I am sure you’ll enjoy the pictures of this amazing Baroque and Rococo library that is steeped in history.

Universitats Bibliothek Freiburg


And finally I arrive at the library development that housed the entire Liber LAG 2016 conference – the Freiburg University Library (nicknamed UB). The interface between the university and the city, this building has ‘self-confidence’ in every aspect. The design team were driven with the ideology that libraries shouldn’t tell people what to do and how to do it; instead they should give people opportunities. The detail to attention in this project is fascinating;

  • Natural materials were chosen as they age appropriately – a scratch isn’t a scratch, it’s part of the aging process
  • The architect wasn’t responsible for creating the ‘ideas’ – he worked with the entire library audience in order to use his skill of picking the right ones
  • Sustainability was embedded throughout the design and running costs are now 65% lower

The split of types of spaces in this library was done in a very unfamiliar way. Non-silent spaces were classed as the ‘Parlatorium’ which was segregated (almost down the middle of the building) by a complete glass partition from the silent ‘reading room’ (the room being almost every floor of the building in this section). There is a growing awareness of user’s preference for focus study in communal areas, but I still felt slightly unnerved at looking at people studying through these glass walls. I was there to observe and tour; I am not sure if the students were in the least bit bothered about our presence. The building provides 1700 study spaces, a media centre (with its own radio station and film rooms), conference rooms, a café and a large lecture hall. The Library aims to achieve the requirements of a modern, academic library (variety of study spaces, support and self-help, social spaces and collaborative areas).

Similar to a recent visit to Lancaster University Library, I was eager to see the staff workspaces in Freiburg UB. As with the rest of the building, the concept of these spaces was that they were to be open, flexible and transparent. The staff workspace was on the top floor of the building and the vantage point from here was amazing – views over the entire city and towards the Black Forest. However, it was interesting to see a key lesson that had been learnt from this transparent approach. Staff have since position large pieces of paper on the windows to limit any view into the areas. When I asked a passing member of staff about this, they stated that an issue created with the maze of glass partitions and corridors was that users often knocked on the windows for help or didn’t understand that these were staff only areas and not study spaces.The team are now trialing different variants of opaque glass to remedy the issue. The absolute consistency of the furniture and fittings may have also added to some of the confusion.

The furniture itself was amazing. I agreed with many of my colleagues that it wasn’t to everyone’s taste but the tan sofas and chairs brought back childhood memories of my families previous tan lounge furniture. Brunner worked with the Library’s design team to purpose design and create a range of furniture for the building. Using leather, wood from the black forest and wool, the pieces were hardwearing, aesthetically beautiful and had a look of ‘realness’ to them, as opposed to synthetic materials. The sofas were completely modular, so that they could be configured as necessary to fit every space in the Library, and it worked incredibly well.

It was stated that before the Library was built, there were many nay-sayers and pessimists towards the plans. However, the team are confident that the majority of people were immediately convinced; “sometimes people need to be confronted with something in order to be able to accept it”.

When is a window not a window? When you can’t see through it and are unable to open it. The exterior of the Library is a mixture of metal and glass sheets. The metal panels can be opened but the glass ones are fixed, with users on the outside not able to see into the building until the night time, when the interior lights turn the building into a beautiful spectacle. The façade is amazing; the 15 different incremental sections provide different angles at every view. But it is not without its problems. Cleaning the windows is a challenge – the first attempt took nearly the entire period up until the scheduling of the second appointment (the Fourth Road Bridge analogy). A panel of glass on the ground level had shattered under pressure and they are not sure how or even if they are going to rectify it.

I noted the incredible sustainable properties of the building and it’s worth going into a little more detail about it. There is a huge underground bicycle park, and no provision for cars (a real shift in approach to travel). It is an aim that the building should never have to be heated (and it can get mighty cold in Freiburg during winter), although heat retraction is required (done through the use of natural spring water). This natural spring water is sourced from a 14m deep local well and stays at a constant 14 degrees in order to support a constant temperature through the building.

The wayfinding and signage strategy was developed by local firm Know Idea and is incredibly effective. The signs are clear and very apparent; those located in the silent ‘Parlatorium’ study area being smaller and less ‘loud’ to reinforce the idea of silent study, however I doubt as to whether there is any practical effect of this on the building users. The former library was located on the same site and the restrictions of space available in the locality forced the university and project team to work with the same footprint. The project is actually classed as a renovation – the building occupies the pre-existing area and also retained the two original stair cores. In this sense, it is the most incredible renovation I have ever seen!







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