Public library design is rooted in the era of Victorian philanthropists, who strove to maintain collective order while facilitating individual exploration. Today’s advances in technology and civil unrest, though, have put this dual requirement to the test. In an age of distraction and rapid change it may not be enough to assume the traditional role of the library as a ‘temple of knowledge’ built for books, to guarantee the future of libraries.
A clear direction moving forward is to reach into the humanist needs of design – the moral, ethical, sustainable, communal elements. As an iconic smart city, Songdo is a fitting milieu for a new library that aggressively embraces and deploys sustainable building strategies. If books are the quasi-religious aura of the past that defined “libraryness”, a phrase coined by Greenhalgh, Worpole and Landry (1995), then nature and ecology are the potential drivers of “libraryness” for the future.
As a conscientious steward of the built environment, the Songdo Library also represents a unique paradigm that is at once elevated, respective of learning and knowledge, while also being grounded in personal well-being and connections to community. As such, the building’s formal expression is dichotomous with one floating volume above another grounded volume.
The design divides the functions of the library into four distinct levels: the base, the living room, the stacks, and the city room. The ground floor is centered on an axial connection between the northern and southern boundaries of the site and is flanked by a performance hall and children’s library, the latter of which is positioned adjacent to a kindergarten building to the west.
As the ground floor represents solidity and the foundation of knowledge, the first floor, fully transparent with its floor to ceiling glazing, speaks to the community. It is a public living room; a space for reading, a space for dining, and potentially a space for engagement, understanding that in our age of cultural diversity, social media, and calamitous change, the library is a place that still allows individuals the luxury of being alone in the company of others.
The living room spills out into a garden, which speaks to the elevated domain of the library and knowledge, while the rolling landscape of the adjacent garden to the east of the site is appropriated and extended to connect to this new “Garden Library” tying back the community to the library.
The third floor is a hybrid of traditional library stacks coupled with more intimate cellular rooms that celebrate the overt structural grid and present largely internalized experiences in juxtaposition to the open and outward nature of the living room floor below. This is a floor of focused but multi-function rooms capable of addressing both the digital and analogue aspects of a modern library. Ascending to the fourth floor affords patrons elevated views to the north and south. The serene atmosphere invites visitors to read, learn, think and to enjoy themselves. From this level visitors can enjoy an unobstructed view of the harbor and the Yellow Sea beyond.
While all buildings designed to contain books are potentially engaging, it is those which negotiate the direct interface between a body of knowledge and an open urban realm that face the most complex challenges. As such, the Songdo Library proudly embraces its community and the common goals for a responsible approach to the built environment.