The Prague National Library serves three types of occupants – media & books, the public and the library staff – each with unique spatial typologies and functional needs. Using the bookshelf as the module for the building, the structure is based on a dense grid of columns, supporting both the bookshelves and the building as a whole. The heart of the library is the mass of book storage, protected from the exterior. Publicly accessible spaces – reading halls, lobby, theater, and lecture halls – are suspended within the lattice. Wrapping around this heart are the support areas, including offices and labs. The façade reveals these areas of human activity on the building’s exterior skin. The Library is also an important institution in the urban fabric of Prague. It is innovative, but ties back to early 20th century Czech cubist tradition and recalls the city’s soaring cathedrals.
Libraries were once built for books. In the past centuries library buildings have gradually assumed a different role, the iconic role of representing the ‘good institution’— the place where rulers and governments invest in knowledge and the enlightenment of their people. Presidents don’t build obelisks, they build libraries to commemorate themselves; cities and universities place their central libraries at their core.
Since the beginning of the 20th century the typology of library buildings have changed as well. The growing archived information on the one hand and the iconic role of the library on the other created a split between the building and the books. The building maintained its monumental features while the books were peeled off the walls and organized on bookshelves in an open floor configuration. This split, while granting flexibility for the book archiving, generated buildings devoid of spatial specificities. In some extreme conditions, the library building remained as only the ‘public interface,’ while the book archive was located in a remote storage facility.
Reexamining the evolution of this typology stood at the basis of the design process. On the one hand, the accelerated growth of information prevents us from going back to the old model of walls covered in books. On the other hand, the iconic role of the central library as an urban monument still remains. However, we found that the open plan configuration and the bookshelf as a freestanding object, taken for granted in the design of contemporary library, is not only an unnecessary constraint but also creates a redundancy. Libraries go through huge strains to construct large open spans which are then filled with stacks of bookshelves that in turn divide the wide open space.
These findings led to two main concepts that generated the design scheme:
The mass of books can regain its spatial presence through reconfiguring its organization.
In order to do so constant growth and mutation has to be embedded in the design.
The main vehicle for obtaining the presence of the books throughout the building was the book mass turned into building structure. This operation generated different structural types for the different programs:
1. Books: Using the bookshelf as the module for the building, the structure is based on a dense grid of columns 1 Meter x 2.25 Meters apart. The structural column grid supports both the bookshelves and the building as a whole. The density of the column grid allows us to minimize the column size creating a delicate lattice of supporting structure throughout the building.
2. Offices: The columns along the east, west and south facades are “stretched” out in order to create the medium span spaces for the offices and workrooms. The office floor plate projects out from the book storage core and creates modulation on the façade revealing the areas of human activity on the building exterior skin.
3. Reading rooms: The reading halls are large spaces used by the public. These spaces are inserted into the book mass and suspended within the dense structural grid. Double and triple height spaces with delicate steel posts wrapping around them create cathedral-type spaces celebrating the interaction of the public with the body of knowledge collected in the National Library.
4. Public core: A continuous lobby space is similarly ‘carved’ out of the book storage mass and meanders vertically to connect all the publicly accessible spaces.
5. Parking: To accommodate for parking the dense structural grid is clustered into a 9 x 9 Meter grid in the below grade levels.
6. Entrance plaza: The clustering of the structural elements between the second floor and the ground floor opens up a 10 Meter high space for a public open plaza and entrance hall.
Internal Vertical Growth
The competition brief suggested an adjacent building for future expansion, mostly for book storage. The proposed building, while adhering to the floor plan requirements of the brief, is composed of a five meter floor to ceiling height which results in a larger volume. This enlarged volume enables the building to expand within the proposed library envelope by adding partial floors between the existing floor plates. This interior growth allows each department to expand organically and independently from other departments and double its size in a contiguous space.
Following the structural logic, the three main occupants of the building-- books, public and the library staff-- were distributed in a way that responds to their programmatic and circulatory needs:
1. Books: The core of the library is the mass of book storage areas located in the center of the building from the second to the 12th floors protected from the exterior air and light.
2. Staff: Wrapping around this core are the support areas including all the offices, workspaces and labs. Located on a 9 Meter band along the building perimeter, these support spaces receive direct access to air, light and exterior views as well as easy access to the adjacent collections.
3. Public: The publicly accessible spaces, which include the reading halls, the main lobby, the theater and the lecture halls, are large span spaces inserted within the mass of books. This insertion allows both the direct connection of the public with the accessible book stack on the same floor slab and the visual connection with the vast amount of data that is not physically accessible to the public. This distribution enables the vertical circulation cores to create continuous vertical flow within each of the distinct occupant groups (Books, Staff, Public). The different departments of the library (Universal Collection, National Collection, Parliament Collection etc.) are organized on the same floor slabs and connect horizontally between their related occupant groups.