Zentrum or Library?

Whilst in Berlin, I spent a number of hours obsessing over the Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm Zentrum at Humboldt University (zentrum being the German word for ‘centre’ or ‘central point’).

Nestled in the heart of the University’s city centre campus, the building is a standout architectural masterpiece, surrounded by magnificent and regal buildings that proudly display the heritage of Berlin’s oldest university (founded in 1810).


Humboldt University


On nearing the library, the atmosphere of the area became relaxed and slightly bohemian. Railways arches had been repurposed as independent coffee shops and bars were full of young Berliners talking about ideas, events and the world at large.

The entrance to the library was a large atrium, giving the impression of a New York sky scraper lobby.


The entrance


I had seen a sneak preview of the interior of the building and wanted to ensure I experienced it from the best vantage point possible. I climbed the imposing stairway, guided by the wooden handrails that contrasted against the jet black railings.


Climbing the beautiful staircase


Reaching one of the upper floor levels, a number of structural columns had been fashioned with internally lit facades that, alongside the linear row of ceiling lights, created an incredible perception of depth.


Walkways lit by specially designed column lighting


And so it was time to see the central masterpiece of the zentrum…

Designed by Swiss architect Max Dudler, the building has won a number of awards including the BDA award for best urban structure; the BDA award for exceptional architectural achievement and the Architectural Award Berlin 2009 for sustainable design of the urban living space in Berlin.

The space is incredible and somewhat difficult to describe in words alone. Each study space has a grand vista yet the feeling of insulation from the void around it. You can hear a pin drop, indeed the footwear I had on made the loudest squeaking sound imaginable (sorry everyone!) The rows of alcoves and each plateau gave a sense of grandeur without being overwhelming.

Surrounding the core of the building (the main reading room) was a collection of over 2 million printed items. Each floor had an immense expanse of shelving, stretching as far as the eye could see.

As a qualified Facility Manager and the Library Space Development Manager for the University of Manchester Library, I couldn’t help but notice some of the operational issues the building is facing 9 years on from when it opened in 2009. Users will always move furniture, and unfortunately this has led to flooring in a number of the foyers becoming heavily scratched. The high use of the zentrum has led to seats becoming  worn and scuff marks on the white columns when used as footrests by people. The impressive column facades have also become cracked – a repair which is probably difficult and costly.

However, these issues are tiny in light of the library’s stunning architecture and the atmosphere it creates for it’s users.

A statement I found online about the design of the building shows the depth of attention the design team went to:

“Everything revolves around the book, since the bookcase is the underlying motive behind all the supports, corridors, windows, gangways and visual axes… the view through the vast grid-like structure of the main reading room already counts among the most beguiling sights of recent years”.

One of my favourite parts of the library was the children’s section, that also included a ball pool! I’m sure a number of students (and staff) have also took turns…


Every library needs a ball pool!


The Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm Zentrum is incredible and awe-inspiring. It’s location, on the culture mile of city centre Berlin, is a perfect match of urban academia and cosmopolitanism. If you want any further evidence of how much people love this library, enjoy reading this blog.

Mike Kelly
Library Space Development manager

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