The Library is Always Open
One of many economic victims of German reunification, the eastern city of Magdeburg...
Mairi Beautyman -- Interior Design, 10/1/2010 11:23:00 AM
firm: Karo Architekten
site: Magdeburg, Germany
One of many economic victims of German reunification, the eastern city of Magdeburg began to decline when its industrial plants, poorly maintained during the Soviet era, proved themselves unable to compete with the west. Shops were shuttered and buildings were abandoned, as much of the population relocated. In some places, it's difficult to go a block without seeing at least one empty shell. "This area has a huge demographic problem-and a 30 percent vacancy rate," KARO Architekten partner Stefan Rettich says of Salbke, a district particularly hard-hit.
In 2004, Magdeburg officials commissioned KARO to perform a study on urban decay. One corner, at the intersection of a busy commercial thoroughfare and a quiet residential street, had languished since the library that stood there burned down. So KARO held a workshop to elicit locals' ideas for the site. The result consisted of 1,000 books gathered during a weeklong drive and available, for a two-day period, in stacked plastic beer crates lent by a beverage company. "Despite being temporary, the event made a deep impression on people, so they continued to collect books," Rettich says. "After a year, they set up a small library elsewhere, in a vacant shop."
The project's success in the community inspired KARO to seek funding for something permanent-without venturing too far from the initial concept. "Returning the land to its original intent just made sense," Rettich says. However, he continues, a conventional building did not: "Why build something new when there are so many empty buildings around? We needed to rethink the library." Hence the idea of going after a government grant intended to promote outdoor spaces that bring different generations together.
KARO's proposal eventually materialized as the Lesezeichen Salbke, which just won a European Prize for Urban Public Space. (Lesezeichen means bookmark.) A 24-hour facility where you can take out a book whenever you want, then bring it back voluntarily, the "library" is really just two walls that intersect to form an L for lesezeichen. That shape both repeats in a huge window punched out of the end wall and inverts with the overhang of the roof.
Asked by residents to maintain the sustainability represented by the temporary library's loaner beer crates, KARO searched for recycled materials to use for the street-facing side of the permanent structure. At an abandoned 1960's warehouse 250 miles away, Rettich got his lucky break: stacks of white-painted aluminum modules inspired by the ones on the facade of Edward Durell Stone & Associates's cylindrical U.S. pavilion for the 1958 Exposition Universelle Internationale in Brussels. Siberian larch, meanwhile, clads the library structure's interior, which incorporates bookcases behind glass doors as well as a stage for concerts, readings, and poetry slams. The audience sits in the outdoor space defined by the L-Rettich calls these 5,250 square feet the "living room."
Picking up on the color of the grass, the windows are green. Ditto for the paint aside from the trail of graffiti tags along the foundation-an unexpected solution to a design problem that emerged during construction "We immediately had graffiti, and it was obvious it would continue, so we started a competition for tags," Rettich says. Of the 30 entries submitted, KARO and a professional graffiti artist selected 18 and invited the winners to a hip-hop music event for the painting. This intervention effectively put a stop to unsolicited marking, thanks to an unwritten tagger law: Never spray over someone else's tag.
Photography by Thomas Volkel.