A Library in the Skeleton of a Prehistoric Animal
Authors: Dalia Čiupalaitė, Matas Šiupšinskas
Without knowing where the Druskininkai Municipal Public Library is, you would be unlikely to come across it. Even though a promenade goes right beside it, leading from the town centre towards Vilniaus SPA, while the other side of the library is often passed on the way to town from the station, the building is hard to notice from either direction. Looking from the promenade or the street, a more observant passer-by may notice a blind yellow semi-circular wall that does nothing to indicate the significant public space that lies behind it. Although returning visitors know full-well what hides behind these walls, a more central location would have better suited the building’s public status and would have made the institution more visible, attracting more visitors.
Once you come closer, a truncated cylinder-shaped volume appears that many might associate with a hangar, a trailer home, a metro station or some other object of technical infrastructure. One might think that the unusual shape should surprise us but it is not the case – similar forms were quite popular a couple of decades ago. The building has a laconic appearance but its various finish materials, staggered pulsation of the windows and reserved relationship with the surroundings fail to make the impression of an expressive public building. The public space formed around it is not an attractive one and does nothing to expand the institution’s capabilities or its relationship with the town. The building also lacks better integration with its context. The grey metallic volume sits like a spaceship that has landed among gable roof houses next to some Soviet ruins and a small 1990s silicate brick castle someone built to realise their wildest fantasies. The environment does not offer many prerequisites for meaningful architectural ties but the library building could have been a start in the right direction.
However, a completely different picture opens up inside. It makes you feel as if you have stepped inside the skeleton of a prehistoric animal or boarded the Noah’s Ark. Spacious. Like whale ribs, the engineered wood structures curve along the full height of the building in the open space, bending walls, culminating in a vault. The windows extend all the way to the roof, filling the space with light. In some places, they rise up to your waist, in others fall almost all the way down to the ground, ending with wide sills. The interior is mostly invisible from the outside, but from the inside, you can lay your eyes on greenery and people passing by.
The inside of the library is mostly a continuous space, all dedicated to the visitors. At the entrance, it goes all the way to the top of the building, and at the middle, splits into two levels. Staff offices and smaller isolated areas for the visitors are arranged along the back wall of the library. The building is basically made up of two wings – an enclosed area at the back of the building and an open area near the main facade. Here the visitors can enjoy tall, wide, roomy spaces. This creates a free, elated atmosphere that encourages you to move around, interact and enjoy the surrounding views.
On the ground floor, the visitor is greeted by a tall, wide registration and service desk, implying that the building has people managing it. The inside of the desk has everything the librarians may require: computer screens, popular books and parts of serial works, carefully thought-out drawers made to the exact right dimensions. This massive piece of furniture, even though it separates the visitor from the staff members, clearly suggests (perhaps even dictates) who you should be approaching.
On the ground floor, beside the windows, visitors sit around at the tables like in a cafe, reading newspapers, checking out books they might want to read, working on their computers or interacting. Further away from the windows, under the floor of the top level, there are conveniently-sized book cases with fiction, scientific literature and foreign language publications. The space easily accommodates different activities and various types of visitors. Children, youths, adults and seniors all sit next to each other. This creates a flexible space open to diversity, where visitors can feel free to work, chat or even have a snack. The top and bottom levels have a visual connection – you can see each level from the other one. This means that our sight has more room to wander around in, revealing what else there is to experience in the library and where else you can go. However, the two levels lack a compositional link. The interior does not feature a representative staircase to accentuate their physical connection. On the axis of the entrance, you will only find an enclosed evacuation stairwell and a lift. Although they are located in a logical and functional place, the connection does not feel organic.
The top level is a continuation of the ground level, a large common space, split into two functional zones by a rift at the entrance to the building. The aforementioned skeleton curves over it, creating a vault above the visitors, which feels especially cosy in the periodicals reading room. The periodicals area, furnished with orderly rows of tables, can be found on the smaller side of the top floor. The visitor work spaces are more formal looking here, but you can choose which side of the table to sit at, or circle around the table with the possibility of striking a chance conversation. The other side of this level opens up to a more elongated space populated by couches and low tables, convenient if you want to sit down to chat, read or do work on your laptop. However, library observations show that visitors tend to settle down near the materials they require. Therefore, this area was the least popular during our visit. On the other hand, it comes to life during concerts and exhibitions, when the couches are removed and it becomes a venue for events.
The building does not have a gallery or an event hall, which would be rather characteristic of a library these days, instead using the available spaces flexibly for various purposes. When events take place on top floor (sometimes even the St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra plays here), there is no possibility to keep the sound from flowing into other areas, which requires compromise and mutual agreement between visitors. This is not always achieved easily, sometimes even sparking conflicts. Such situations are settled according to the notion that this is a public rather than academic library, and therefore its visitors should accept it as a space where noise is not prohibited. However, even though complete silence cannot be expected, as it would be impossible to achieve in such shared spaces, those who seek solitude can find refuge in the more remote ethnographic reading room, the media room or the computer classroom. Noise in libraries is an important issue that requires novel architectural solutions and a reconsideration of the concept of library itself. If ‘traditional’ libraries have been seen as zones of silence, contemporary libraries, on the contrary, are designed for sound. Nevertheless, it is important to control where and how much noise there will be, how it will spread and how it will be limited. Concert-friendly acoustics attract musicians but make it difficult for visitors working in the reading rooms.
The decision to use the same spaces for various activities raises dilemmas. On one hand, this allows reducing the floor area and eliminates the need to maintain an unused hall. On the other hand, such a decision means that noise from events hinders the provision of traditional library services. To put it simply, the library environment becomes noisy. Then again, not having a separate space for a gallery does not pose any issues at all. The visitors can see the artworks in places they would go to anyway: the reading rooms and hallways. The artworks displayed come closer to the visitor, while various events may help new people discover the library. Therefore, the internal structure of the building, although posing some dilemmas and requiring compromises from its users, enables the library to successfully function as a social institution.
Upon arrival, we learned that the managers of the building not only filled the interior with plants but were also deeply involved with the furniture makers in designing the furniture. The efforts to make the environment as convenient as possible are commendable but also reveal something about the story of how the building came to be, which was not entirely straightforward. The creation process took longer than expected and the building’s appearance kept changing both during the design and when fitting the interior. Why did that happen? First of all, the architects of the building – Justina Padvarskaitė and Danutė Padvarskienė – did not author the interior, because their vision did not match the one of the future operators of the building during the design process. Upon failure to agree on principal spatial elements (e.g. the levels and book cases that were supposed to line the walls on top floor, which librarians would have had to access using ladders), the majority of the decisions regarding the interior were made by the staff. The spaces are convenient but have certain details that stand in the way of having a cohesive interior, meaning that it lacks a stronger concept and the creative assuredness required for it to be a fully-fledged public interior. Some of the decisions did nothing to bring architectural harmony to the building but were necessary for it to function as a space that accommodates the institution. This relates to the second part of the story, which partially explains the relationship between the volume and its context. The location was allocated for the library with an intention to reconstruct a former kindergarten building. According to the librarians, reconstruction proposals had been drafted but after surveying the soil, it became apparent that it would be easier to build a completely new structure here. Unfortunately, rebuild design proposals created in collaboration with library representatives were destined to remain in paper, and a different team of architects took on the task of designing a new library.
Perhaps because of the complicated process, the building dons the marks of several hasty decisions. One contemporary feature, characteristic not only of libraries, are the panoramic windows. When designing them, it is important to pay attention not only to the appearance of the building but also to whether or not it will be possible to ensure its practical use. A glass facade fills the interior with light but causes issues with overheating and glare, and in some reading rooms, the books are not sufficiently protected from fading. The building requires constant cooling in summer and heating in winter. This increases maintenance costs. Therefore, the staff decided to cover the top parts of the windows (at roof level) with protective film against sunlight and heat. The same treatment was also given to other features that proved non-functional, e.g. a glass door leading to the archive storage room or one separating the office of the library director from the visitor area. Designers should always be considerate of maintenance costs and the needs of the staff. Tall, curved windows, sills sticking out at ceiling height – all of this makes cleaning the building more difficult, which in turn either requires more funds or causes the aesthetic appearance of the building to be neglected. Also hindering the smooth running of the library is the decision to position children’s reading rooms across two floors without directly linking them with stairs. Therefore, when children want to get to the playing area from the reading room where the books are held, they have to walk all the way across the building.
Overall, the building could benefit from more interior functionality and especially lacks a more integral relationship with its surroundings. Despite being situated in a resort town, the building fails to make use of the advantages of the nearby promenade and lake. The panoramic windows face a parking lot next to the building and an access road, but no relationship has been established with the views available in other directions. In terms of urban design, the building seems to have been plopped down on the allocated lot wherever it would fit. It does not sit well in its surroundings, does not integrate with the local pathways, has no visually inviting approach area or an attractive public space next to it.
Despite all that, the library is known not only to the locals but also to some of the holidaymakers in Druskininkai and always has plenty of visitors. The library’s eye-catching, continuous, yet friendly to various activities, interior space seems to be popular with both the young and the old, although at the same time some potential was left untapped, because the place could have been even more impressive. After visiting a good number of Lithuanian towns, it seems that the most impressive libraries are ones born out of agreement between the architects and the staff. That is not the case with this one. This time, there was a lack of understanding and not enough attention given to how a library functions day-to-day and what practical demands it has to meet. The concept of the library as an institution is challenged in such spaces. On one hand, this library, as many others built or rebuilt under the library modernisation programme and visited by the authors of this article, aligns with the idea of what a contemporary library as an institution should be. It is open, freely accessible, has a relaxed atmosphere – a space for leisure rather than serious individual work. But due to a lack of professional solutions that would enable the coexistence of two opposing uses, the space is neither a quiet one suited for individual work, nor a fully public one meant for socialising (people still speak in hushed voices here). Therefore, it is up for the library to tame the space and shape its own life in this roomy prehistoric skeleton, while the hindrances created by the design will have to be overcome through the librarian’s hard work.
M. Šiupšinsko photos