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A proposal for a new central public library for Christchurch:

Concept and overall layout

The site chosen for the new library is on the northern edge of the square, on the eastern side of Colombo Street and bounded by the square to the south, Colombo Street to the west, Gloucester Street to the north and Press Lane to the east. Part of the south edge of the site abuts the existing Novotel Hotel. The proposed library is a simple rectangular block arranged around two courtyards, an outer public courtyard accessed by pedestrian gateways to the north, west and south, and an inner courtyard accessed only from the library itself. The library itself is entered from the east end of the outer courtyard. Apart from the entry to the library, the ground floor space around outer courtyard houses commercial sublease spaces, the tenants carefully chosen to be complimentary to the role of the library. The inner courtyard is entirely enclosed by the library. The upper levels are entirely library. The entirety of the north side of the building (overlooking the courtyards, Gloucester street, Colombo Street and Press Lane) contains a sequence of galleried double height reading rooms, while the south side (overlooking both courtyards, the square and Colombo Street) contains offices, closed stacks, other more private reading rooms and other ancillary spaces. The tower houses either the office of the head librarian, or a gallery space for special displays.

aerial view from west
The proposed library from the east

Overview

Canopy, arcade and gates

The footpath along Gloucester Street and Colombo Street is sheltered from the worst of the weather by a light and gracile steel and glass canopy cantilevered out from the walls, keeping off the rain while admitting light to the lower level spaces. An arcade shelters the shop-fronts along the south front facing the square. On each of the three main fronts is a gateway through to the outer courtyard.

seen from Gloucester Street
Looking east on Gloucester Street

Outer courtyard

The outer courtyard is a space for gathering, meeting, lounging, listening and lunching. It is a space for public speaking, civic ceremony, impromptu theatre and other kinds of busking. It is a large rectangular space occupying the centre of the west end of the building. The courtyard is edged with an arcaded cloister, and contains cobbled paving, grass, seating, two fountains and as many large deciduous trees as seems reasonably practicable.

outer courtyard
The outer courtyard

Commercial sublease spaces

The western half of the ground floor, fronting onto Gloucester Street, Colombo Street, the square and the outer courtyard,  is given over to commercial tenancies compatible with and complementary to the library. This might include independent bookshops, book exchanges and antiquarian bookshops, as well as small art galleries, music shops, record shops and of course a café or two.

Colombo Street, Gloucester Street corner
As seen from the corner of Gloucester and Colombo Streets

Library entrance

The west end of the outer courtyard is the entrance to the library itself. The entrance is off the cloister along the west end, with generous doors of timber and bevelled glass opening onto the entrance hall. This contains the checkout counters, the stairs and a rank of cage lifts. Directly opposite the entrance is a wall of windows and glazed doors opening onto the cloister of the inner courtyard. The central crossing wing of the building is the main public circulation space.

Library ground floor and inner courtyard

The east half of the ground floor is the library itself. This surrounds the inner courtyard, a smaller, quieter more contemplative version of the outer courtyard. The inner courtyard is a space for sitting and reading in pleasant weather, and a space to look out on and inhabit vicariously from the library spaces when it is cold and wet. A low hedge surrounds a lawn with four deciduous trees, seats and at the centre a pond with water lilies and plump, lazy goldfish. The inner courtyard is surrounded by an arcaded cloister accessed directly from the ground floor stacks and reading rooms. At the corner of the library space facing Press Lane and Gloucester Street is a café accessed only from the library.

inner courtyard
The inner courtyard

First floor reading rooms

The core of the library is on the first floor. Along the north (Gloucester Street) elevation and wrapping around the Colombo Street and Press Lane frontages is a series of three double height stack and reading rooms. Under elaborate timber fan-vaulted ceilings, all three have tall traceried windows facing the street, lighting the tables and seating of the reading spaces, and galleried stack spaces overlooking the reading areas on the inner (courtyard) sides. The west reading room has a row of large reading tables and a relatively narrow set of bookshelf alcoves and balcony along its inner side. The east reading room has deeper balconies and more stacks, with more intimate reading spaces furnished with comfortable sofas and armchairs, as well as tables and chairs for enjoying big heavy books. The stacks and balconies overlook the courtyards. The south end of this east reading room facing Press Lane is the children’s library, with more complex balconies, lower bookcases and a throne and cushions for storytelling. A simple screen and gateway separates the children’s library from the rest of the reading room. The middle reading room is under the tower, and while much smaller than the other two is otherwise similar.

east reading room
The east reading room from beneath the tower

west reading room
The west reading room looking towards the tower

Discussion and study spaces rehearsal and micro-performance spaces

The first and second stories of the western half of the south wing contain a few spaces for special collections, and an array of soundproofed rooms overlooking the square, Colombo Street and the outer courtyard. These are for group study and discussion, for theatrical rehearsal, reading aloud, small scale theatre, poetry recitals, oratory, music performance, rehearsal and composition. They might also be used for playing music, film and even video games in the library collections.

gateway from the square
The south gateway facing the square

Office spaces

The first and second stories of the western half of the south wing contain office spaces, workshops (such as the bindery) staff rooms and other ancillary spaces, including some closed stacks.

Roof terrace

Above the office wing overlooking the south side of the inner courtyard is a roof terrace. Set into the top of the south wing overlooking the inner courtyard, this space is enclosed on three sides by a simple cloister, with a parapet to the north overlooking the courtyard five stories below. The terrace is paved and contains planters and some seating. It is a quieter and sunnier outdoor space away from the bustle of the rest of the complex, though it may on occasion be used for some outdoor performances. It is accessed by a side stair and lift near the top of the main stairway in the central cross-wing of the building.

Attics

The attics are largely for closed stacks and storage, though they also house ducting and other components of the building’s passive ventilation and cooling systems, as well as the batteries for the photovltaics covering much of the roof.

Tower rooms

The tower rooms should house special collections or exhibitions, and may also contain the office of the libraries manager.

the tower
The tower from Gloucester Street

Library Usage

A city library must serve a variety of functions. Overlapping with the museum and art galleries it is a storehouse of historical documents and creative works. It is a hub and a resource for research and learning, but it is primarily a place where the combined knowledge our society has gathered and values, and the stories our society has told and holds dear, are collected together, kept safe and made available for all of us to partake in. Historically this has meant a collection of books, articles, journals, letters, and other printed and written matter.

While the importance of these is undiminished and will remain a core function of a library for the foreseeable future, a library must today include other media, such as audio recordings (music, literature, verse, local history, field recordings and such), audio visual (film, television series, documentaries to name a few), computer games, and the vast array of other media forms which are still emerging and evolving.

Collections

The bulk of the collections would be arranged much as they are now. Most of the books are on open stacks, optimised for efficient searching and serendipitous finding. The most popular lending items would of course be on the ground floor, and items most likely to be read in the library would be closest to the seating and tables of the reading rooms. Extra copies of very popular items would be available on request, and rare and fragile items would be kept in special collections accessible on request. Art objects and artefacts would be displayed in gallery spaces and in cabinets around the library, or could be available for study on request. For the most part though, non-book items would best be made available electronically to all users, items which are not native to a digital format being digitised as means permit.

Research

With the collections made as available as practical, the tables of the reading rooms would provide space to read, to lay out source material and write. The west reading room is set up as a study hall for this purpose. Audio-visual material would be accessible through a tablet computer and headphones, but where greater quiet is needed study space could be booked in the south-west wing.

west reading room gallery
Study tables in the west reading room

Recreation

Much of the use a public library gets today is recreational. For this reason there is plenty of comfortable seating in the reading rooms, and places to sit and read under the windows, in and around the inner courtyard and on the roof terrace.

sofas in the east reading room
In the east reading room

Children’s Library

The children’s library is at the end of the east reading room overlooking facing Press Lane, separated from the rest of the reading room by a timber screen and gateway carved and painted with scenes from much loved children’s fables. The space has complex balconies to make it dramatic, low bookcases and at the end of the room, surrounded by cushions is a storyteller’s throne. The children’s library is as richly decorated as the rest of the reading rooms, except that the art is perhaps a little more light-hearted and fun, intended to appeal to the children who will experience it. The walls of the children’s library are painted as a forest interior, the branches of the trees reaching up to merge with the fan-vaulted ceiling.

Music

While recorded music may be listened to in the library reading rooms with a tablet computer and headphones, library users might also book one of the soundproofed rooms in the south-west wing. These spaces might also be used for playing or experimenting with items in the library’s collection of musical scores, or even by individuals or groups needing space to rehearse or compose (things that cannot be done in a crowded flat or inner city apartment).

Audio-visual

Film, video, television and such can be experienced like music with headphones and a tablet computer, but a group could book a room set up as a small cinema in the south-west wing.

Drama, poetry, and spoken word

Dramatic works, poetry and spoken word can be treated much like any other audio-visual with recordings or films of plays able to be watched or heard on a tablet with headphones. Again, a group may book a small cinema space too. But plays are written to be performed, while poems and speeches are written to be spoken. An individual might book a sound-proofed room in the south-west wing to read aloud or rehearse, and a group might book a space set up as a small theatre.

Computers

Computers are an inescapable part of a modern library, but computers are changing rapidly and can be expected to keep changing. Apart from the computers at the checkout counters, help desks and in offices, and the touch-screens for the catalogues at the stairways and at the end of some of the stacks, this library has no fixed computer workstations. On entering the library patrons may be issued with a tablet computer which connects wirelessly into the library’s network. This gives access to the catalogue and the library’s digital collections (as well as of course the internet), and may be used anywhere in the library, including in the inner courtyard (if it is not raining) and of course in the reading rooms. With a custom-moulded case, a non-standard charger connection and the ability to connect only with the library’s servers, these tablets should be fairly safe from theft. There would be enough of them to justify the cost of making them. For people engaging in research work or who simply need to write things down, a wireless keyboard could also be issued. A tablet could easily contain at least basic word-processing software, and room to store data in the cloud or a library folder belonging to a card-holder.  If a person doing research work in the library wishes to have multiple electronic documents open at once, multiple tablets could be issued.
With the library computer system being present when creative work is being done, work such as writing, composition, and performance, perhaps even art, there is scope for the library’s users to contribute directly to its collections.

Construction Technology

Like any major building in the 21st century, the new Christchurch central library will need to embody green building principles.

Daylighting

The building consists of a series of relatively narrow wings grouped around two courtyards. No interior space needs to be very far from a window, so the interior spaces should have plenty of natural light and natural ventilation too. The reading rooms are lit by tall windows with deep embrasures to reflect light. These high spaces will be evenly lit and bright enough for reading, but not so heavily glazed that they would overheat in summer or get too cold in winter. The courtyard walls are painted white to reflect light and keep the spaces as bright as practicable.

Energy

Not having extensively glazed curtain walls the building should neither overheat nor freeze. The relatively narrow wings are optimised for natural cross-ventilation, and the windows open. When not relying on simple cross ventilation, the building utilises a passive ventilation system for which the turrets and towers contain intakes and outlets. The steep roof pitch is well optimised for solar electricity. While the shaded portions of the roof would be clad in (recycled) rubber slate, the areas receiving direct sunlight would be clad in photovoltaic slates, which fit to the same module and substrate.

Circulation

The main vertical public circulation to the building is a generous stairway in the cross wing near the entrance. Like any principal staircase in a public building it should be easy to find, well lit, carefully detailed and pleasant to use. Immediately adjacent to the foot of the stairs is a rank of cage lifts in timber, glass and intricately detailed steel.

Construction

The building is primarily of reinforced concrete. The more detailed elements, such as the windows, arcade sections, sculpture panels, mouldings and string-courses are generally precast concrete components, made in series in re-usable moulds. This is a task our precast concrete, garden ornament and glass-fibre reinforced concrete industries are well equipped to do. The cladding to the first floor is red brick, the same colour as the scoria and burnt loess of the port-hills cliffs, while the remainder of the walls are faced in etched concrete, their colour being the natural grey of the Canterbury Plains aggregate from which it is made. Properly secured to the rigid reinforced concrete behind it, the brickwork can easily be made to perform well in earthquakes.

As a regularly shaped building with sufficient external and internal walls, the structure is easily made strong and earthquake resistant without needing to resort to sophisticated and expensive technology. With the addition of a basement and a narrow lane between the library and the adjacent Novotel hotel, the building could easily be made base isolated, given that it is already a relatively compact plan with a stiff structure. If base isolated the courtyards would best be included in the superstructure, with inset planters for the trees and grass. While there is some debate as to how effective base isolation is at protecting buildings on the soft deep soils of Christchurch, we expect that this building would benefit.

While the substructure, walls and lower floors are of reinforced concrete, the upper floors and roof structure, as well as the columns, galleries and ceiling of the reading rooms are timber, treated radiata for the concealed structure and painted elements, and sustainably grown hardwoods for the oiled woodwork exposed to view and wear. The ribs of the reading room ceilings are laminated timber, and it should be noted that all the ribs and panels are formed to the same curvature. For the most part the moulded, stop chamfered and otherwise shaped timber would be CNC machined, again using technology and equipment which is already well established in this country.

The materials used are naturally durable and as environmentally sustainable as reasonably practicable. The brick and concrete are non-toxic, and can give centuries of service. Weathering will give them a patina, but they will age gracefully. The materials and technologies used here are established and proven, commonly used and readily available. They are not unduly expensive.

Art

While a public library collection is likely to include some artworks, this building will include a significant amount of artwork into its fabric. Much of this would be included in the original construction, but there would be plenty of scope for adding more art as finances allow and as donations (of money, of artworks, and of artist’s time) are made.

Sculpture integrated into the fabric of the building includes the sculpted panels over the main pedestrian entrances, the capitals of the columns around the courtyard arcades, as well as the pilaster capitals in the concrete window frames, moulding and chamfer stops, corbel brackets and other small details. The sculpted panels above the entranceways would be commissioned from local artists, the themes for this decoration being chosen in consultation with the community, including Iwi groups. While maquettes (full size, probably in clay, plaster or plasticine) for some of the column capitals and other details would be commissioned from significant artists locally and nationally, others would be solicited from the public at large, with contributions from artists, hobbyists, art students and school children. The best of these would be chosen, moulds taken and the components worked into the building. The art will need to reflect the full richness and diversity of our community, and this approach just might be able to achieve that.

While some of the interior sculpture, such as around the stairs and lifts would be obtained in the same manner, other items could be donated later. These later donations might include sculpture over doorways, wooden statues within the reading rooms, painted panels in the reading room balconies, stenciled decoration (similar to the painted detail in the great hall of the former provincial council chambers) to the timber vaulted ceiling of the first floor reading rooms, wall murals, as well as other art and furnishing items. In time people might wish to donate stained glass, though this will need to be treated judiciously so as not to reduce light levels too much.

Cost

This is not a cheap building, but a major public library worthy of a major city never is. This building would be worth the money, and would not lose value by promptly going out of fashion in fifteen years. Much of the applied art and other finer detail could be added later as funding allowed, and the design lends itself to soliciting for donations.

Architecture and context

While this is a technologically modern building intended to meet the needs of Christchurch people in the opening decades of the 21st century, it does not look like most new buildings being built today.

Why does this building look as it does? The appearance of the building is a direct expression of its function and internal layout. The red brick over the grey concrete base echoes the Port Hills with their basalt and scoria sea-cliffs and caves rising over the grey gravels of the Canterbury Plains, the towers and turrets echoing the rock tors of the hill-tops. The forms and materials of the building reference the surviving and lost landmarks that helped  define the city and its identity, it references the old post office and the former press building, the various now absent brick gothic buildings that punctuated our city, and it links in with the surviving stone gothic buildings that we cherish. The overall massing of the building references the mediaeval Cloth Hall in Ypres, Belgium, destroyed in the horror of the First World War, and rebuilt in the decades that followed as a powerful symbol of rebirth and reconstruction.

This is a loud and rambunctious building, it sets out to be noticed, it sets out to be unmistakable and it sets out to be unforgettable. A major public building should be should be a landmark, and it should be something that could never be mistaken for anything else. A central public library is too important to be allowed to be ordinary.

This is not a fashionable building. This is a building that accepts where we have come from, and that our achievements are built upon the achievements of our predecessors. Gothic architecture has been around for a while now, it is readily adaptable to today’s technology and usage, and has been well liked for centuries. A new wholeheartedly gothic building built now is likely to be loved thirty or a hundred years from now, and it won’t need to be expensively refurbished in twenty years when other buildings have gone out of fashion and are looking `dated’ and `tired’.

The architecture we generally call contemporary is late modernism, a style invented in the 1910s and developed in the 1950s and 60s. It became fashionable in the wake of two world wars, where a traumatised society could be convinced that history was over and the world could be treated as a clean slate. Looking back, we can now see that history is on-going and cannot be so easily compartmentalised. Modernism is an anti-historical architecture, its forms intended to seem alien to people used to both traditional architecture and natural forms. It can best be defined by three traits, a rejection of ornament used to articulate form, a rejection of a full detail hierarchy (with detail designed at only a small number of scales instead of a full range of scales as seen in all traditional architecture and all natural objects), and a refusal to reference forms or motifs outside of the modernist movement. The modernist style today is largely driven by nostalgia, a hankering for the simpler world of the middle of the 20th century, and the resulting buildings are largely elegant pastiches of glamorous houses of the 1950s, and of speculative concepts for commercial buildings drawn by the likes of Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in the early 1920s. These buildings are all very elegant, but it is hard to argue that they are especially relevant to the world we live in today.

The trouble is that almost all of the buildings we see being built today are in the modernist style. This is understandable given that the architecture profession is highly self-selected, with students who are not already predisposed towards liking the style rarely entering, let alone finishing architectural studies. There is no significant discourse on this subject. Architects and designers are not a representative sample of our society, and consequently the built environment does not reflect the full diversity of our society. Many people are left out, and have come to believe that architecture that is meaningful and beautiful to them simply cannot be had. Looking at our more recent suburbs and large areas of our cities, it is clear that many people have learned not to care about architecture.

This proposed library will not appeal to everyone, but in a society as diverse as ours has become, one architecture representative of all of us as we are now is impossible. While it might not be fashionable just now, there are many people in our society, people of all ages and from all backgrounds, who crave architecture with intricate detail and rich textures, architecture that is not afraid to acknowledge the full richness of our heritage, and the value in bringing it with us into the future. Today the lovers of high modernism are well catered for; this building is for everyone else.



James Carr - April 2015