Berlin and the Brain

Last week I visited Berlin for the first time. During my stay I spent a day looking at a number of University and public libraries across the city.

The Philological Library aka The Brain


The first library I visited was the Philological Library (Philologische Bibliothek) at the Free University of Berlin (Freie Universität Berlin). Otherwise known as The Brain (you’ll see why shortly). I first learnt about the Philological Library at the LiberLAG conference in Freiburg in 2016 from Dr Klaus Ulrich Werner (Library Director, Freie Universität Berlin).

The outer layer to the library


The library, opened in 2005, is an architectural wonder. In the world of library spaces, I believe (like many others) this is in the top five most stunning university library buildings in the world. Built within the university campus, the spherical building is at odds with the surrounding angular buildings. It’s dual layered skin hides the incredible symmetry and configuration of the internal space.

Entering the building, I was amazed by the cleanliness, consistent silence and layout of the space. The reception area (which had no entry gates, just RFID security gates) welcomed you into a tiered atrium with a central staircase through the middle.

The central atrium, entrance and tiered floors


The shape of the building (inside and out) is only one part of the reason it was designed by Lord Norman Foster to reflect the composition of a brain. This article explains the full reason why the metaphor was used in order to guide the vision of the design. Often libraries are the heart of a university, however this dual academic and public library is certainly the brain of the campus.

A simple concept led to a complex dual skin structure that not only creates a striking aesthetic but also provides a sustainable heating and cooling method throughout the year.

The “Brain” is the striking metaphor given to the Philological Library at Berlin’s Free University designed by the world famous architect Lord Norman Foster. This does refer to its shape, its exterior and interior structure, which is an architectural consequence of building a library with low energy costs. The heating and ventilation of this kind of dome is cheaper than a rectangular structure because of there is less space, less cubic meters. For the Philological Library, a new energy-saving ventilation and temperature control concept was developed that allows natural ventilation of the building. In addition of a concrete core temperature control, there is no need of a traditional air conditioning with its high consumption of energy. The building was fitted with a double shell of aluminium panels and sun protection glass outside for this purpose (and an inner skin of white fabric), with the ceiling cavity thus created serving as an air supply and exhaust system: membranes on the interior of the dome, and air vents on the exterior. Depending on different weather conditions, certain sections can thus be completely opened or closed. This additional temperature control is carried out by means of a network of plastic pipes laid in the concrete shafts and the intermediate floor of the five levels of the building. Warm or cold water is conducted through them as required. The district heating network supplies the energy. The library is not only a spectacular “green” building, but a location with very good climate conditions – by low costs.”

Dr. Klaus U. Werner

Libraries as Green Buildings: Designing and Managing an Environmentally Sustainable Library in Germany. 7th May 2015

Study spaces circling the book collection and overlooking the atrium


The arrangement of the study spaces envelopes the central collection of books. Each study space is identical and offers not only power and task lighting for every user but also a semi-private environment within a communal setting.

As always, I spent a lot of time looking at the facilities in the space, from signage to shelving, obvious issues to great ideas. It is well known that the building’s dual layer skin has created a need for ongoing repairs and has issues such as leaks. However, there was very little else I saw that posed a facilities related issue – even the entire charcoal carpet was spotless.

Water ingress onto the inner layer of the building’s skin


Signage ranged from text heavy floor plans to bright, colourful wall signage. The free standing floor guides had a fantastic design and added a nice contrast against the charcoal floor. The shelf end signs were cleverly embedded within the metal shelf ends, providing ease of use, good design and a consistent finish. I was not sure how useful the small floor signs painted on the staircase walls were, as they weren’t at eye level when you approached them. However, throughout the building the signage was clear, easy to use and interesting.

I also loved the contrast between the white walls inside the building against the corridors leading to the surrounding buildings the bright orange created a fantastic perspective and real feeling of moving from one, very different space to another.

Coloured corridors leading out of the library


The Brain is an incredible building and a brilliant library space. The atmosphere was certainly academic and scholarly but not in the normal way you find in other libraries. It was modern and organised yet organic and comfortable. The size of the building is masked due to the flowing curves of the tiered floors. The views from the study spaces overlooking the atrium create an incredible impression to those studying or entering the building. It was great to see shelving used for different displays and even a Technics 1210 turntable available to use (with headphones of course!). I’m proud to have ticked off The Brain from my Library space bucket list!

Mike Kelly

Library Space and Facilities Manager

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