In The Light of Academic Libraries
In my entire experience of university study, I haven’t spent more than three consecutive hours studying in a university library. The library was never ‘my’ place. During the five years of my bachelor’s I wondered why anyone would trade the prized comfort and night-time quiet of one’s own room for the distraction of constant footsteps, fidgeting bodies, ruffling papers, clicking pens, and unnerving whispers of computer rooms. I had always considered studying a private affair, a struggle all my own, which entailed a set of practices, from reading aloud to particular body positions to zoning out in panic, which seemed too idiosyncratic to be carelessly exposed to peers at the library. Besides, the regulated space of study rooms with rectangular layouts of austere wooden chairs and desks spelled out a school-like atmosphere. It made the idea of solitary study at a library repressive and off-putting.
But not all libraries are made the same. Although, years later, my reserve towards spending hours working in public discomfort has largely persisted, I admire the throngs of students who find them a welcoming space for all modes of study, from cramming for exams to preparing term papers, from taking notes to writing dissertations. And, while I may be averse to studying at university libraries, I do derive great enjoyment from browsing their shelves or immersing myself in random-marking collections. With the hours spent at libraries adding up, my naïve questioning of their spaces morphed from ‘why any library?’ to ‘why this particular library?’ Or rather, what is it about a library, save sheer necessity, that makes one venture out and turn studying into a public activity? What makes us say we ‘feel’ a library? And how does the interior of the library operate to create an atmosphere conducive to concentrated work?
Before being safekeepers of the world’s books and places where homework is done, libraries are built objects, enclosing and creating space. As buildings that foster a very specific interaction between humans and space, their design, configuration, and organisation are marked by a special capacity to incite an emotional response, which is what might be understood by the ‘feel’ of a library. To determine why one may be (dis)inclined towards ‘feeling’ a building, Gernot Böhme turns the term ‘atmosphere’ into a concept of architectural aesthetics. Although he acknowledges that architecture, like sculpture, operates in the realm of the visible, Böhme challenges the notion of perceiving architecture solely through the sense of sight and advocates for a wider engagement of the senses: ‘[I]s seeing really the truest means of perceiving architecture? Do we not feel it even more?’ (212). Building on this understanding he describes ‘”the atmosphere of a city” . . . [as] something that has to be sensed in order to understand what is really at stake when we talk about atmosphere’ (Böhme 199). It is ‘something characteristic, that is, something peculiar to the city, what makes it individual and therefore cannot be communicated in general concepts’ (Böhme 199). What applies to a whole city may apply to the library, too – the way the life of and in a library flows is closely linked to its characteristic ambient.
‘I like working in the large room, with plenty of seats. It’s bright and spacious. The chairs aren’t very comfortable, but I like that – it makes me change posture and not slouch’, says a cultural studies doctoral researcher who has committed to writing at the university library of the University of Giessen, Germany. His preference for brightness and space pinpoints one of the vital ‘generators of atmosphere’ – light. Theorising the role of light in library design, architect Jeffrey Scherer sets off with the claim that ‘light – in a metaphorical and literal sense – is a primary issue for libraries’ (358). Indeed, the concepts of light and illumination underlie the concept of a library in intricate and profound ways. Thus, metaphorically, we might speak of libraries as repositories of the world’s knowledge, as beacons guiding state-of-the-art research and discovery, enabling en-light-enment, illuminating intellectual pursuits, and enkindling novel ideas.
Metaphors aside, light, above all daylight, plays a substantial role in determining a library’s design and functionality. One of the ways it performs this function is by ‘reveal[ing] architectural form and providing reading light’ (Scherer 358). In other words, the external and internal configuration of a library is of paramount importance for harnessing light to maximise productivity and user comfort. While such utilitarian considerations of both natural and artificial lighting are undoubtedly significant, the entire body of a library building and its constituent parts interact with light to generate a particular atmosphere. For instance, in order for the library goer to perceive the room as bright, she would need to see the chairs and desks filling the room in the light of the sun or series of lamps. This implies that one does not perceive light in itself but objects illuminated by it, or rather that light itself is invisible.
Böhme, however, emphatically disagrees: he claims that, when cast in a medium, manifestations of light are certainly visible. The first two examples of manifestations of light he proposes are light rays and luminous bodies, and the latter are particularly adequate for discussing the atmospheres of light in libraries. Namely, he describes luminous bodies as ‘something substantive, as a cloud or a patch of fog’ that we can see ‘only when they stand out against a dark background. Otherwise, their material character disappears behind the manifestations of light, which they are. Thus these luminous bodies are light manifestations of a unique kind. . . . Their material character is not evident’ (Böhme 303). Despite this proclaimed immateriality, Böhme lands on lamps as luminous objects that are unique not only in being a manifestation of light, but also in being objects we see both in light and as light. To these he adds the phenomena of ‘pure light’, such as celestial light or aurora borealis (Böhme 305). An interesting example of a pure light phenomenon is the halo, ‘the aura of light [that] envelops these bodies’ (Böhme 305). Light, therefore (or ‘lightness’ – Böhme’s preferred term), can hardly be considered a substance or an entity, but ‘a freely floating quality’ of space (Böhme 307). In other words, ‘[t]o perceive lightness is to perceive space’ (ibid). In order to explore how some of the above light phenomena are borne out by the exterior and/or interior of university libraries, and how the library space interacts with light to create an atmosphere, let us examine a few examples. A striking one is the new building of the library of the University of Freiburg, opened in 2015. Centrally located, it rises from the ground of the main city square and, according to its architect, Heinrich Degelo, takes the shape of a cut diamond. Anecdotally, this very shape and its black metal-and-glass façade have earned it the nickname ‘The Death Star’ among the students, and due to its marked difference from the surrounding historic architecture the citizens of Freiburg have not taken kindly to its construction. And no wonder: its hard edges make for an asymmetrical though not exactly fluid appearance, and the all-dark façade by day lends it a monolithic and imposing air – quite the opposite to what one may associate with a structure harbouring brightness in every sense of the word.
The interior of the diamond-shaped building, as far as the architects’ hard geometrical conception is concerned, complements its exterior. A smooth, metallic revolving-door entrance leads into a similarly monochromatic ground-floor interior that upholds the strict geometry: long rows of grey lockers, anthracite tiled floor, and a cafeteria box closed off on all but one side. Another defining feature is the massive presence of bare concrete: enormous cylindrical pillars rend the free space adjacent to the cafeteria, the staircases are fenced with slabs of concrete, and plainly visible pipelines cut across the ceiling. The illumination throughout the whole building is made of horizontal and vertical neon lamps, suspended from the ceiling next to boards of matted metal. Rather than reflecting and enhancing the neon light, the boards seem to absorb and diffuse it, diminishing instead of increasing the brightness. Thus, coupled with the ‘unpolished’ appearance of the concrete elements, the prevalent grey colour and lighting produce an almost industrial atmosphere of cold and muted light. Rather than being of service to pursuits of knowledge in a ‘bright and spacious’ ambient, the imposing interior seems to call attention to its own opacity and grandeur.
The university library of the Blindern campus in Oslo presents another intriguing example of light atmosphere creation that seems rather ambiguous in comparison to the Freiburg one. Externally, the building sports a glassy black look, solidified by the monumental marble pillars lining its front side. Although its geometry follows a clear symmetry, the outside seems to perpetuate the dark, light-absorbing, and towering effect of its Freiburg counterpart. Yet, its interior tells a different story. The transparent glass windows hidden behind the colonnade allow for natural light to enter the building unhindered, and the open and tall main hall receives and distributes it evenly across all storeys. Scherer says: ‘We do not want to see the illumination, but rather the amount of light reflected’ (360). The surfaces of the main Oslo university library embody this to a splendid effect: bright tiled floor, beige inner walls, and wooden-grid accents deployed throughout play along to produce an atmosphere of freedom, movement, and brightness.
The achievements of the distribution of light and softer design elements at the Oslo University library are picked and levelled up by that of the University of Helsinki. The main library is located in the city centre, and contrary to its red-brick exterior, the entrance opens into a wide and generously lit walking area, lined by wooden desks that invite to both work and play. The geometry that defines this space is oval, fluid, and inviting – the ground floor communicates freely with the upper floors through the atrium of inner concentric ellipses that govern the design of the entire building. Seen from below, they seem unattached to other solid surfaces and therefore suspended in the air. Their dome-like top opens into the sky and channels daylight from above. In this way the light enters laterally as well as vertically, radiating through the whole of the vast interior. To add to this, the white of the elliptical panels is reflective in a way that renders space visible, while their free flow subdues their concrete materiality to the service to form and light. Each ellipsis thus becomes a luminous body, emitting a halo that transforms the library into a phenomenon of pure light.
The specific light atmosphere in a library, therefore, is generated by the way light enters, traverses, and varies as it meets with the physical bodies giving shape to the library space. The specific design and arrangement thus, when opaque and self-imposing, have the capacity to absorb and obstruct the light, or, when transparent and reflective, magnify its brightness and even manage to transcend their own material nature. In Scherer’s words, ‘light is still a defining library element, for the prosaic and practical, as well as the profound’ (370). To return to the metaphorical value of library light, one would not venture so far as to claim that the more illuminated the library space, the more illuminated the knowledge it inspires and emits. However, an atmosphere of freedom, flow, and brightness could kindle an appreciation for ‘the profound’ in libraries and a ‘feel’ that they truly shine a light.
Böhme, Gernot. The Aesthetics of Atmospheres. Routledge, 2017.
Scherer, Jeffrey. “Light and Libraries.” Library Hi Tech. Vol. 17, 4, pp. 358-372
*All photographs belong to the author, unless specified otherwise.