Sometimes We Do It Right

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Authors: Dalia Čiupalaitė, Matas Šiupšinskas

“Sometimes we do it right” – once wrote Ada Louise Huxtable, the pioneer of critical architecture review. Sometimes we manage to create a piece of architecture that perfectly binds together scale, boundaries and connections. The Anykščiai Liudvika and Stanislovas Didžiulis Public Library comes very close to this standard. Contextual and modern, organically placed within the town centre, it excellently relates to its surroundings but also stands out and is attractive – the Anykščiai library building appears to be created exactly for this place, almost as if it grew right out of the ground. Meanwhile, the spaces and activities it offers make it a lively centre of Anykščiai.

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Comprising three large volumes, the building neighbours Vyskupas Park, which is located in the historic town centre and rises above the river bank like a peninsula. Lining one edge of the park, the building provides a refuse from the winds and turns the space into a cosy green stage. Finished in red clay tiles, the facades harmoniously reflect the brickwork of the Church of Anykščiai, while gable roofs echo the roof lines of the town centre (a monument of urban heritage). Although it may seem like most of the design decisions were quite cautious: a waving volume, gable roofs and facade colours that subtly match the surroundings, the building is not invisible or lost in the background. On the contrary, it catches your eye and welcomes you to come closer. The writing on the facade proudly announces – LIBRARY. 

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The park goes from an open public memorial space with the A. Baranauskas sculpture, to a more family-friendly area by the library. The lush green space acts as a yard for the library. In it, you can take a seat cosily on wooden platforms/terraces or have some fun on a swing hanging from lush trees. A path goes along the facade of the library, where numerous benches and tiles have the word hello written on them in various languages. These little details draw you in to take a look, step inside and maybe read a little. The facade does not have a dominating entrance – instead the building can be entered through one of its ‘fissures’. Eye-catching entrances are necessary for buildings that dominate the area and are visible from afar, guiding your path. In this case, a more modest solution was chosen, one that matches the character of the compact town and is more pedestrian-friendly. Upon entering, you can feel the physical and emotional closeness of the building, you can see fragments of it but not the whole volume, which is why a pompous entrance is not necessary. Foot traffic flows right along the facade – just a step to the side and a passer-by becomes a visitor.

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The interior of the library both contrasts and matches the exterior. Like a chestnut with an autumnal shell hiding a white interior, the inside of this clinker-tile-clad building with a tiled roof welcomes you with shades of white and grey. The exterior of the building offers a modern spin on traditional shapes and materials. Its modern interior makes some references to traditional shapes, especially on the first floor, where the spaces are shaped by the gable roof and metal trusses reminiscent of wooden roof structures. The relationship between the interior and exterior feels organic, a modest, clean-looking entirety has been achieved through contrast. The same author designed both the building and the interior, and it also seems that this library is an example of generous funding. It is more challenging to create harmony in a building when the interior and exterior are designed by different people, and also if there is a lack of funds during the construction process. In such cases, it is usually the interior that suffers. But not this time. The interior is aesthetic and also practical. Convenient furniture allows transforming the spaces and looks modern and high-quality, but the design does not overshadow day-to-day functionality. Inside the building, there are a lot of plants, ceramic statuettes and other objects that help the staff feel more at home in their workplace. It appears that the staff easily settled in within the spaces without underestimating them or feeling underestimated themselves.

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The first association that somewhat surprisingly springs to mind as you step in is the Toledo Cathedral. The building was highly integrated into the urban fabric and its side entrances would be opened up so that citizens could cut across the cathedral as they were walking on the street. That way, the space of the cathedral organically merged with the space of the city. A similar sense comes from entering the Anykščiai Library through the main entrance: from the park, through the lobby, you can go straight to the courtyard. With doors open, the entrance lobby turns into a transit space, which affects it in a positive manner, softening the boundary between outdoors and indoors. The space becomes an information centre and a visual one, while also being a dynamic, public space where people pass each other and stop to chat. Here, the memory of the Toledo Cathedral is followed by an association with the chapter Aeolus in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is written in newspaper style: it feels like winds blow through it, news items flying around, visitors coming in and out, sitting down on the steps for a while, reading the news of the town on the bulletin board, flipping through newspapers, taking a look at the community book exchange section. No staff members meet you here, but you are welcomed by the building itself as a place of information that gives you directions, helpfully guides you and offers you a seat. Once you step inside, you won’t feel lost – your sight can move in various directions, all information on what can be found and where is presented on a pillar, while glass partitions show us what’s going on in the reading rooms. Orienting yourself is made even easier by the large signs announcing the purpose of each reading room above it. The ground and first floor are connected visually through an angular spiral staircase leading up to the open space on the upper floor, with glass railings that have a text by Liudvika Didžiulienė inscribed into them. A clear symbolic link and a hint that there’s more to be found on the upper floor. Glass railings add to the sense of transparency and provide a visual link. From them, you get a clear view of the lights floating under the ceiling like a flotilla of ships. The staircase is reminiscent of the ramp that connects the floors at the Utena Library but lacks its elegant aesthetic and looks like it barely fit in the space available.

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The word nook is very suitable for describing the spaces of this library. One such nook is under the stairs. It has a small round table with chairs. I am sitting here right now, writing. A woman seated next to me is reading the news. The latest newspapers are laid down on the table. I feel cosy in this area under the stairs, the nook feels appropriately furnished. It serves those who want to read newspapers – the local news – or people looking for somewhere to sit down without having to go further into a reading room. A transit zone between two entrances to the building, located opposite each other, extends nearby. Across from here, there is a niche where the visitors can hang their coats, and next to the entrance to the reading room, there is an empty wall with a few electrical sockets. It looks like a place for a coffee machine, information desk or a small bench but nothing is here at the moment. All in all, the entrance area is unrestricted, active and helps you orient yourself, however, it lacks some functional and aesthetic connections and completeness in terms of its architectural configuration.

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The building is made up of separate volumes pinned on a wavy axis. The structure shapes the interior logic: the library is made up of open-yet-clearly-defined, and enclosed-yet-pass-through spaces. They are all linked together visually but maintain their independence thanks the curves of the building and the logical arrangement of functions. For example, the compilation department can be accessed through the children’s reading room, but also directly from the outside, while staff members don’t usually go there at all. The ethnographic reading room is passed on the way to the creative space called Debesynas but this does not result in a constant traffic of passing visitors. Overall, the rooms are arranged in a way that takes the visitor flow well into account – the most important areas are located around the main staircase, with more specialised ones, such as staff offices or the ethnographic reading room, deeper inside. On the ground floor behind the children’s reading room, there is a small area for parents and the youngest visitors of the library, and if you go even deeper, you will find the compilation department. Thus, the building acts as a bunch of various rooms, corners, nooks and crannies where the visitor can find the space that suits them best. Walter Benjamin, the diligent urban observer once wrote of Naples: “As porous as this stone is the architecture. Building and action interpenetrate in the courtyards, arcades and stairways. In everything they preserve the scope to become a theater of new, unforeseen constellations. The stamp of the definitive is avoided. No situation appears intended forever, no figure asserts its ‘thus and not otherwise’”. In a way, Anykščiai Library is as porous as Naples, breathing through its spaces that merge together, encourage you to stop for a moment, and can be easily passed through in various directions thus being full of action. Porous structures allow complexity to develop.

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The robust concrete library building manages to offer flexibility on the inside. It does not have an isolated entertainment hall or a separate gallery space. The open space of the first floor can turn into a lecture or concert area, exhibition space or simply a place to have a seat, have a chat and do some work together. As we were visiting, one day children were playing football here, on the next day, an Ethnographic Society event was taking place. A decision like this saves space in the building and gives it flexibility but poses issues when coordinating various activities together. As usual in such cases, sound travels to all the reading rooms during events.

The library has a lot of space for active, creative work and events. The open space on the first floor is used flexibly for events or exhibitions (which is made easier by the well-adapted movable furniture). Debesynas is another open space on the first floor of the library, inviting people to partake in artistic endeavours, exhibitions, projects and lectures. The idea lab in the basement is dedicated to the creation of music and film. Next to it, plans are being made to open a local photography museum. This is also where the library’s closed archives that didn’t fit in the adult reading room are located, alongside a technical area. Almost every nook and cranny of the building is used for something, which appears to stem both from the architecture of the building with all of its little corners and the Creativity Lab.

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The space of the building appears free, flexible, non-binding, but the majority of it is dedicated to transit spaces or open areas suitable for events. From all the various areas, the main ones in the library are adult and children’s reading rooms and they get rather crowded. Visitor service area – the essence of the library – is furnished very efficiently. Bookcases go all the way up to the readers’ desks. They are of a convenient height and have wide passages between them so the readers can comfortably browse the books, but a little more movement would begin to disrupt the other visitors’ work. The visitors are offered the classic library work scenario – classroom-like rows of desks. A couple of couches are also available for those seeking more comfort but the reading room interior mostly encourages silent, independent work. The library could offer more scenarios for everyday use through furniture and interior solutions that would draw the visitors together in a non-binding way, allowing them to face each other and interact.

The children’s reading room is also rather small. Even smaller spaces were formed inside it through bookcase arrangement, and it offers computerised workplaces for children. Despite many toys and colourful decorative items, the children’s area still looks unfinished and somewhat random. The heavy white bookcases seem slightly too massive. There’s no space here for active movement, which forces the children out into the greenery of the park, which acts as an extension of the library space during the warmer part of the year. Also, there is no reading room dedicated to youths, so the younger visitors might lack space. Perhaps this is compensated through the spaces of Debesynas and the idea lab. 

The staff areas provide generous room and appear well lived-in. Out of all the libraries we have visited, these work areas are the most attractive. The staff desks always stand to the side from entrances, so they are nearby but not in a position of dominance. The rather tall desks shape spaces into little offices that are in no way separated from the visitors. The librarians are always close, ready to help but at the same time avoid taking up a central position in the room, which allows the visitors to feel rather free.

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There is a lot of glass here, which is typical of Lithuanian libraries built after 2000. As we’ve noted in previous texts, large glass surfaces in libraries not always prove worthwhile. But in this case, the rhythm of glass and solid walls is harmonious. There are a lot of vertical window strips, and the windows are covered with blinds, which the architect designed himself. The facades do not have continuous glass walls but the connection with the outside is established through several window elements that also act as visual pauses. The windows mostly match up with pathways between bookcases, which in turn are arranged next to the closed fragments of the facade. In this library, you can enjoy a constant connection with the environment without feeling exposed, so the building acts as a safe and comfortable shell for the visitors and the librarians.

The building was fitted out in a way that required very little changes. Various library activities found their place. Perhaps some more space for open archives would be useful and perhaps there could be more sockets for laptops, or more spaces for interaction with desks arranged in other than classroom-like patterns but all that aside, you feel welcome here and you can always find a place to settle down. The most significant change to occur in the building was the retrofitting of the air conditioning system. Although the first floor features visible equipment and piping (open utilities systems were not a part of the design), the change was rather moderate and did not damage the character of the space. Inside the building, the atmosphere is free and democratic, which encourages a more liberal view towards changes, especially if they have the potential of making the building more convenient.

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According to Romas Kutka, the director of the library, the shape of the building resulted from discussions between himself and the architect Vytenis Daunaras, who also happens to be born in Anykščiai. It was one of those cases where the architect collaborated with the people who represent the library in creating the building. As shown by the study, this has been one of the core conditions for a successful design in at least nine public libraries. Staff opinions not always match up, after all, the managers look at the library more as a whole and with a certain vision, while other staff see it from a more localised point of view that depends on what functions they carry out, but it is important that all these people participate in the design process. It looks like in this case both sides were able to listen to each other and the result is indeed very enjoyable no matter whether you are just walking past the library or decide to take a step to the side and pop inside it.

M. Šiupšinskas and D. Čiupailaitė photos