The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1888] Libraries of Unification


In recent history libraries have played crucial roles in the cultural and physical development of cities and their population. A library, through its architectural typology, speaks directly about the social state of a nation, coalescing complex social noumena. As the library has undergone numerous transformations in its typology since its inception, these transformations have come to reflect the evolution of information and its modes of communication, containment and preservation along with socio-political environments within the city. The library has come to reflect an entropic environment where physical and intellectual space pre-figure one another.

The beginnings of formal libraries can be traced back to the late 6th century. These libraries were generally formed by monasteries and subsequently reflected such specificity. During this period there was a shift in how information was stored, where the folio manuscript was substituted for the scroll. Focus shifted away from the superstitious and towards the rational with the foundations of universities in the 13th century. Throughout this period libraries were not of an independent nature but rather tangentially fixed to an institution such as a university or a church. The information within these libraries was only accessible to a select few. In this respect, libraries implied monumentality through social hierarchy. Library typology during the period reinforced this hierarchy through a rigidity of spatial organization. The libraries were typically adorned by rows of windows with books chained to lecterns along the perimeter of the room. Controlled access and specified limitations within spatial arrangements of the libraries were indicative of the singular authoritative social structure.

The typology of the library radically transformed with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. The social attention shifted towards humanism and secularization during this period. Libraries focused on educating the masses. The library evolved into a new typology of a “Wall System” because of the significant influx of volumes. This system incorporated numerous shelves surrounding all walls of a typically long rectangular room. The grand scale of the room allowed for a great reading space in the center, thus placing the central focus on the reader’s spatial experience – where the metaphysics of the mind and body collide – feel physically small in a giant room, feel mentally small surrounded by hundreds of imposing shelves full of “knowledge”. This relationship reflected the focus on the individual that emerged during the Renaissance.

The importance of human reason was of great concern during the age of the Enlightenment in the 19th century. It was during this period the library emerged as a separate institution - breaking its bounds from the church and the university. Information access was no longer controlled by a single authority. Libraries were now symbolic of the glorification of the human thought. Libraries assumed a greater role within a city fabric. During the Enlightenment philosophers believed that human existence could be understood through reason. The new typology embraced clarity in its order, reflecting the ideal of Reason. The libraries’ spatial organization took on a hybrid form - focusing the attention on the individual while still providing importance to the object. The emphasis however was placed on knowledge over information, the act of reading over the book. The library typology became circular, a metaphorical comparison of the perfection of human thought to the geometric perfection of the circle. Numerous levels of shelves, accessible by ladders, enclosed the central space.

The invention of the rotating press in the 19th century resulted in massive proliferation of volumes. A diversity of published opinions created a novel importance for point of view. Information was no longer from a single source or of the same subject matter. Knowledge was now subject to interpretation. Consequently, the book now possessed its own identity. Contrarily, the central reading space was losing its identity because of the influx of books. The “Wall System” could no longer contain all the material due to the ever increasing number of volumes and subjects- bookshelves were spilling into the space of the reading room. This required a new organizational system to manage all volumes. Organization was made physical in the new library typology through the distribution of programme elements allowing for more flexible spaces and possibilities of expansion. The taxonomy in books mirrored the emersion of new socio-economic classes. Classes and categories were now able to coexist in the same sphere, thus marking the origins of a pluralistic society in the city.

The transformed typology increased emphasis on the act of reading and that of discourse. In this respect, we see the library embracing social aspects and the importance of interaction. The library was no longer used merely as an information and knowledge warehouse but rather a stimulus for social debate. A spatial organization emerged with communal rooms for social interaction. Society placed great emphasis on the state of mind and intellectual growth of individuals, which could be stimulated in the library not only through readership but also through public discourse.

A stronger sense of toleration emerged with the notion of liberalism. A singular social structure was able to contain multiple directions of thought conception. This kind of diversity does not take a centralized structure but rather one that implies regulated measures where many different structures can coexist. The library undertakes yet another typological transformation with these new notions of tolerance and liberal thought. A sense of equality emerges with the reduction of the hierarchy of social classes. Similarly; the spatial arrangement within libraries eliminates hierarchy of programme elements allowing uniformity. Libraries have multiple rooms dedicated to both knowledge and information. The focus was no longer on either the reader or the book but rather the institution as a whole. Libraries become agents of storing, ordering, conserving and transmitting information, all in the same space.

Libraries are now at a threshold where the type of information being stored is transforming. Information has evolved into an encoded media that is not spatially bound. North American cities have adapted a similar character of not being spatially bound. The technology of the automobile allows cities to be programmatically secluded into capsular clusters and the geography allows for cities to be vastly spread out. The suburban sprawl contributes to low population densities and vast distances. In this respect; the segments of the population not owning a vehicle find themselves in a compromised situation where the city is pedestrian-unfriendly. This part of the population usually includes the elderly as well as the younger generation i.e. adolescents, young adults. Public transportation takes on an important role in the logistics of living of these populations due to long travel time between destinations. This is certainly the case for the city of Cambridge.

The city of Cambridge was formed in 1973 in Southern Ontario, Canada. The city was the result of an amalgamation of three smaller towns. The city is quite young demographically, geographically spread out and is developing its social identity. Cambridge has very low population density resulted due to the nature of its formation through suburban sprawl. The vastness of the city contributes to the lack of the city’s clear geographical structure. The structure of Cambridge is disjointed and chaotic and takes the shape of an informal fusion of three pre-existing urban typologies. Traveling between the three nodes using the public transit system is very time consuming. The proposal to enhance the public transportation system and the overall connectivity of the city is to be facilitated by a series of small scale libraries placed, with precision across the city’s major bus stops. These libraries would be a unification catalyst in an otherwise disconnected city.

Placing small scale libraries throughout the city at major bus stops would address various problems of the city on several scales. Each library would act on a local level by addressing the surrounding community. The system of libraries would affect the larger framework of the city. At the community level these demi-libraries would act as social clusters and therefore transform libraries into multi-purpose social institutions. At a more macro scale of the city, libraries would provide reasons to travel to otherwise unexplored parts of the city either to get new material or visit other social clusters. In this respect, libraries would establish a matrix of social information within the city. The Library matrix would symbolize and embody the development toward a unified city.

These libraries would provide permanence in the domain of the transitory. The function of a library is most directly associated with the transmission of either material/information and/or knowledge. It is therefore appropriate to place a library within the system of public transit. Libraries would act as catalyst to the public transportation system to unify tri-town area.

Historically the library took on a fairly rigid typology, which typically had a very formal arrangement in a symmetrical geometry. This kind of formality implied certain hierarchies. Today we live in a global environment where rigidity does not reflect the social ideologies and in fact may contribute in a counter-productive fashion. Therefore for libraries to embrace a flexible typology in order to adapt to multiple programmes and multiple environments according to new uses and forms of media makes sense. Libraries adapting a formless typology would reflect the ideology of a diverse liberal society further entrenching the connection between form and content. Through this kind of architectural typology, libraries would be liberated from their previous, now anachronistic, monumental character, thus creating a more democratic environment. This kind of typology would provide the means for serving the curious and setting an inviting atmosphere for those who are not attracted by the traditional framework of a library.

Riders of the public transportation system could browse, borrow and subsequently return material at any location within the city. The transfers in Cambridge can take up to an hour. The potential for greater social interaction forms by placing libraries at transportation hubs. Libraries would fulfill their traditional function of information storage while also providing a space for social gatherings during the waiting period as well as meeting places for the surrounding communities, thereby embodying a truly modern paradox by becoming both destination and throughway.

The establishment of the matrix of libraries would express the ideology of the modern democratic society. The Organization of Public Architecture reflects similar social values. They focus their efforts toward the public interest. They act as problem identifiers as well as problem solvers of human interaction within built form. The organization acts as a catalyst to promote public discourse through the encouragement of awareness of social environments.

An example of this kind of thinking could be seen through the project for Day Labor Stations. The Organization has identified a problem which day laborers face of lacking any kind of amenities and the city’s inability to accommodate such spaces. The organization of Public Architecture designed a simple station with a flexible typology which can be deployed at various informal locations such as parking lots and gas stations.

The relevance of this project is in the potential of such informal spaces. The Organization of Public Architecture envisioned great potential in otherwise static spaces within the urban fabric and designed a flexible typology to accommodate different programmes. These programmes vary from employment centers to more social gathering spaces. This simple design solution shows the ability to address and act on various scales. The labor stations provide a structurally flexible typology which allows for many uses in other informal spaces in the city. They also provide for the immediate physical needs of day laborers. This typology has other potentials of advocacy and insights for the public on socio-political levels within the city. Labor stations may potentially serve as an example to reuse informal spaces in efficient ways within the city.

I would like to work closely with Public Architecture to analyze in depth the city’s urban challenges. As an active user of Cambridge’s transportation system I can offer first-hand perspective on the underestimated systems of the city. I can provide Public Architecture with my vision and my exposure to the genius loci as well as my experience within the building industry. By working in a team environment with the organization of Public Architecture a chance for a positive learning atmosphere emerges. While providing possible interventions from my perspective as a local city dweller, Public Architecture would potentially provide outlets for common wisdom gleaned from previous experiences of working within the social realm as it relates to architecture.

Libraries as public architecture give clues about the socio-political systems and point toward a future. The effect of the libraries will speak about the importance of community and society. In this respect the libraries would address the localized community as well as the city as a whole without adopting a monumental language with its implied imposition of power or hierarchy. They would take on an inviting, friendly and less formal language – the library as signified rather than signifier.

Knowledge plays a vital part at the core of any culture. Libraries are buildings that enshrine a part of a culture through storing its knowledge. Today’s modern culture has evolved from highly localized environments to dispersed, pluralistic ones. The architectural typology of the library should accommodate and reflect the new urban ideology. Libraries would act as conduit spaces which collect multitudes of ideas through various types of media and then dispense them. The wide distribution of knowledge expresses the ideology of a community as it is served by its institutions.

The library faces another point of transition with the innovation of media. The new digital media is not a threat to the physical need for a library; rather it presents unique challenges to this formal institution. The relationship between an individual and a book offers a type of intimacy which would be hard to replace, thus making it difficult for the book to be threatened by other media types, however concordant modes of knowledge delivery are emerging. Libraries are not static; they have continuously evolved according to new uses and innovations in technology media and society. Digital media will augment the amount of information available because it is not spatially bound. New media provides great potential to make knowledge more widely available throughout the world, thus offering universal access to knowledge.

Libraries are as important in their typology as they are in larger socio-political roles. They stimulate the mind; allow cultures to flourish and minds to prosper. These libraries have the potential of unifying communities through intellectual and spatial means. They can act as an ingredient within a dynamic culture and work with societies in perpetual flux. By taking the shape of a distributed model, libraries would contribute to the porosity within the rigid modern city grid and thus unify an otherwise disjointed city through the friction of cross-interaction. While the city offers generality and in itself is generic, the libraries offer a unique typology through accumulation of programme elements which aid the transformation of the generic city. Forms are not innocent, they inform and educate us. With the new typology of the library the form will speak of social justice while advocating diversity and awareness through education and discourse.

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