The Library as Third Place

Morten Schmidt spoke at the Museum of History this week. Schmidt is a partner at the renowned Danish architecture firm, Schmidt Hammer Lassen (SHL), best known for their libraries. For context, they have proposed a new central library for Ottawa, recently, together with Toronto’s KPMB architects.

Full disclosure, my employer, the NCC, put on the event together with Carleton’s Azrieli School for Architecture and Urbanism, for whom I recently taught an urbanism studio.

Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s library in Halifax recently won a Governor General’s award here in Canada,  and they’ve been recognized for their work all over the world. They recently won library commissions in Christchurch, New Zealand, and in Shanghai, China, and have built more than 50 libraries worldwide.
The NCC’s Dr. Kristmanson and Andy Fillmore, MP for Halifax, who is also a planner and urban designer, introduced the speaker. The Hon. Mr. Fillmore talked about his experiences and challenges getting Halifax’s stunning new library built. The entire downtown was rezoned by 2012, to try to spur growth, setting the stage for the new central library.

Schmidt’s focus is what he calls ‘democratic architecture’; one that invites the entire public to enjoy it, and is designed using a thorough consultative process. He shared the firm’s work including several libraries and a few other cultural buildings.

Today, he says, the libraries play the role of a ‘third place’, where people gather; between work and home. In our digital society, human minds are changing; based on using phones all the time to look things up and navigate though cities, we don’t use our memories as much. But despite changes in technology, the need for libraries continues. Our access to information is also today increasingly being controlled by companies like Google and Amazon. The public library should be an answer to this issue.

Copenhagen’s Royal Library, for example, designed by SHL, holds the nation’s archives, but is also designed as a social place, and is completely open to the public. This library is both a civic and cultural centre.

The most important function of the library today is to allow people to reinterpret the world around them. Besides museums, libraries are among very few truly public spaces today. Involvement and empowerment of individuals and communities is key to today’s library.

In Halifax, the public was intimately involved in the design process, over a period of six months. In consultation with the local kids, who were “Harry Potter mad” what the designers heard over and over was that it should be like Hogwarts. The designers decided to watch the movie again, and the moving stairs in the movie became a source of inspiration. Library attendance has been much higher than expected in Halifax, and the library is considered highly successful.

In Aarhus, SHL created a new library on the waterfront, the result of a design competition. The library doubles as a transit hub, with a light rail station and automated parking garage in the building. Kid friendly play structures surround the library. Inside, public performance spaces and contemplative quiet places abound.

In Shanghai, Schmidt is designing a very large new library with massive interior public spaces.

SHL broke ground on a library for Christchurch New Zealand recently. A lot of buildings are missing in that city today, because of the recent devastation by an earthquake. The library will be the first major public building. Maori traditions are being incorporated as a key component of the project.
The Hon. Andy Fillmore and Mr. Schmidt sat down after the lecture to speak more informally about the work, and take audience questions.

As an architect and urban designer myself, I find Schmidt’s work inspiring. Having received a presentation like this I’m struck that North American public buildings have a long way to go to be more ‘democratic’ and welcoming to the public, but also more aesthetically successful.