What’s more perfect than a library? Nothing, you say? Well, you’re half right: a library is perfect, but a *beautiful* library is a step above perfection. And luckily for us book lovers, there are dozens upon dozens of stunning libraries all around the world to inspire us (and give us a bad case of the travel bug). After all, what could be better than sitting down in a comfy chair and reading a book or two in one of the most architecturally amazing buildings on the planet? Not much!
If you thought the Amazing Bookstores From Around the World post had cool stores in it, just wait until you see these libraries.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Egypt)
What better library to start with than a modern commemoration to one of the most well-known libraries from antiquity? Though the Library of Alexandria was lost to time, its modern counterpart was constructed in an attempt to continue its ancient predecessor’s purpose as a focal point of study and knowledge. Designed by Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta and completed in 2002 for a pricetag of $220 million, the library sits on the Mediterranean coast and has shelf space for eight million books. It boasts a trilingual collection, featuring books in English, French, and Arabic. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is most famous for its stunning main reading room, which is 70,000 square meters (that’s 750,000 square feet for my American readers) on eleven cascading levels, and is underneath an impressive 32-meter-high glass panel roof that is tilted out towards the Mediterranean.
In addition to its reading room, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina houses a conference room, a planetarium, four (yes, four) museums, fifteen permanent exhibits, and a manuscript restoration laboratory, among other features. It is also the sixth largest Francophone (i.e., French language) library in the world, and is the largest depository of French books in the Arab world; this is all thanks to a *very* generous donation of 500,000 books by the National Library of France (Bibliothèque nationale de France) back in 2010.
Geisel Library at University of California at San Diego (U.S.)
Yes, that weird looking thing is in fact a library. One of the most interesting examples of architecture in the United States, the Geisel Library was designed in the 1960s by famed American architect, William Pereira (you may remember him as the guy who designed the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco), He designed it with the hopes that future additions to the building would be made in order to form terraced levels around the tower base; the first of these levels was added on in the early 90s by Gunnar Birkerts. Originally called the Central Library when it was first opened in 1970, the geometric building is a stunning example of brutalist architecture and has two subterranean levels along with its visible eight stories.
It was renamed Geisel Library in 1995 after Audrey and Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, for their contributions to the library. It’s only appropriate, then, that the Geisel Library is the home to the Dr. Seuss Collection, which contains 8,500 different drawings, memorabilia, manuscript drafts, sketches, books, audio and video tapes, photographs, and notebooks of the beloved children’s author, with items dating from his death in 1991 all the way back to his high school years in 1919. The collection is unfortunately restricted to researchers due to the fragility of some of the items, but the library does put some of the collection on display during the summer and in March in honor of Dr. Seuss’ birthday. It’s worth a trip just for that!
Delft University of Technology Library (Netherlands)
Who doesn’t love a modern, eco-friendly library that also happens to be gorgeous? I know I do! Located on the Delft University of Technology campus, the library was designed by the Delft-based architecture firm Mecanoo and opened in 1997. The library’s grass-covered roof provides natural insulation for the building, and the structure is partially lifted on one side to allow students and visitors to walk up to the top of the building. Seems like a decent place to have a picnic, right?
One side of the library is entirely glass, and the building is topped with an enormous steel cone that doubles as a skylight, which gives the library its unique shape and its gorgeous, modern look. Looking at these pictures, it shouldn’t be in the least bit surprising to learn that Menacoo won the Dutch National Steel Prize in the “buildings of steel and hybrid constructions” category in 1998.
Kanazawa Umimirai Library (Japan)
This is certainly not your archetypal library building. Completed in 2011 by the Tokyo-based company Coelacanth K&H Architects, the Kanazawa Umimirai is a 45 by 45 meter “cake box” that’s spread out across 5,600 square meters, is 12 meters high, and perforated by 6,000 round window openings. The library’s crowning feature is its massive reading room, which was designed to resemble a “forest filled with soft light and a feeling of openness reminiscent of the outdoors” because of the window openings and the high ceiling.
The goal of the project, according to Coelacanth K&H Architects, was to create a library that wasn’t just a place for lending and returning books, but rather to make it a place where a reader can experience a special kind of atmosphere that he or she is never going to get anywhere else; they also envisioned it as a new hub for social life within the local community. I don’t know about the forest bit (maybe if it were green instead of white I’d have an easier time picturing it), but either way, it looks like a pretty neat place to read a book at.
Vennesla Library and Culture House (Norway)
I think this library might be my favorite one on the entire list. Designed by Stavanger-based firm Helen & Hard and completed in 2011, the Vennesla Library and Culture House is a public library serving the Vennesla Municipality in Vest-Agder, Norway. The main building is made of wood, and features 27 glue-laminated timber arcs that support its roof. These timber arcs are what lend the 1,900 square meter building its whale ribcage look.
The library’s design has garnered it a good amount of public interest, and it has won a number of architectural awards, including the Norwegian state prize for good buildings, the Statens byggeskikkpris, in 2012. Further adding to the building’s appeal? It’s a “class A” low energy building. Looking awesome and helping save the planet, all while looking like the inside of a whale. How cool is that?
José Vasconcelos Library (Mexico)
Don’t let the rather dapper entrance of this library fool you; this 38,000 square meter library is one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Located in Mexico City and dubbed the “Megabiblioteca” by Mexican press, the library was designed by Mexican architect Alberto Kalach and is dedicated to former philosopher, presidential candidate, and president of the National Library of Mexico, José Vasconcelos. The total project cost ended up being somewhere around $98 million.
In addition to its modern interior and famous hanging whale skeleton (apparently libraries are also fans of whales), the library also has a botanical garden on its grounds. This was included in an attempt to combat the extreme urbanization that Mexico City is known for, as well as to provide readers the chance to reconnect with nature via the reading rooms.
Seattle Central Library (U.S.)
One of the neatest libraries in the United States, the Seattle Central Library is the flagship of the Seattle Public Library system and is visited by over 2 million people each year. Completed in 2004, the library was designed by architects Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus of OMA/LMN and is 362,987 square feet and can hold approximately 1.45 million books. Its unusual design is meant to do away with the stereotypical “stuffy” layouts that people perceive libraries to have, as well as be an architectural celebration of books in the modern digital age. It is the third Seattle Central Library building to be located at 1000 Fourth Avenue.
Critical response to the library has been mixed, with some people liking the eccentric design and others finding it not to their liking. This hasn’t stopped the library from doubling its usage since the opening of the new building, however, generating $16 million in new economic activity in its first year. The Seattle Central Library has also received several awards, including the national AIA Honor Award for Architecture in 2005 and the American Council of Engineering Companies of Washington’s Platinum Award for its “innovation and engineering in structural solutions.”
Villanueva Public Library (Colombia)
The Villanueva Public Library’s story is hands down the most interesting one on this list. Colombia is known for its political instability and economic woes, and many inhabitants of the country’s poorer regions lack certain cultural tools that help them achieve things like higher education, such as libraries. In an attempt to combat this problem, the Ministry of Culture and the local government combined forces with the Colombian Architect’s Society to put together a national contest to design the Villanueva Public Library.
Four architects—Miguel Torres, German Ramirez, Alejandro Piñol and Carlos Meza—from the Javeriana University Bogota-Colombia and all of whom were under the age of 27, won the prize and designed the 3000 square meter building using local materials like river stones (which you can see on the building’s outer facade) and sustainable wood from nearby forests in order to cut down on transportation costs and keep the budget small. They also enlisted and trained locals to help build the library, keeping the outside labor force numbers to a minimum. Not too shabby for a few twenty-somethings, eh?
The entire project was completed in 2006, and remains one of Colombia’s most famous new libraries.
State Library of Victoria (Australia)
Down in the great Down Under, book lovers can find one of the largest (and prettiest) libraries in the Southern Hemisphere. Located in Melbourne in the state of Victoria, the State Library of Victoria was first opened in 1856 and has been expanded and modified over the last 150+ years, which major renovations taking place between 1990 and 2004 to make it look the way it does today. The redevelopment cost approximately $200 million, and included the construction of a number of different exhibition spaces meant to house a number of permanent exhibitions; the new additions make the State Library of Victoria one of the largest exhibition libraries on the planet.
In addition to its history and beauty, the State Library of Victoria houses over 2 million books and 16,000 serials. Among its collection are the diaries of Melbourne’s founders, John Pascoe Fawkner and John Batman, and the folios of explorer Captain James Cook (you know, that guy people thought was eaten by Hawaiians back in the day. Fun fact: he wasn’t, in fact, eaten by Hawaiians). The library also houses the original armor of famous Irish Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly.
Stuttgart City Library (Germany)
2011 was definitely the year for white cube building libraries! Opened in October 2011 in Mailänder Platz (an area that planners hope will become a future city center), the Stuttgart City Library is an enormous cube with an edge length of 45 meters and features a 5-story open gallery hall with a fountain in its center. The library was designed by Yi Architects, and cost about 79 million euros to build.
The modern gallery hall is lit primarily by a central roof light, which coupled with the neutral white interior makes the hall look exceptionally bright. The purpose of the all-white decor was to showcase the many colorful books on display. It’s modern design has been an instant hit with locals and non-locals alike, and it was featured on pretty much every beautiful library list I came across while researching for this post.
Admont Abbey Library (Austria)
This next one is about as different from the Stuttgart City Library as you can get (which is, of course, why I had to put them back-to-back). The Admont Abbey Library in Austria is the largest monastery library in the world, housing 70,000 of the Benedictine abbey’s 200,000 volume collection along with 1,400 manuscripts, the oldest of which were gifts by the abbey’s founder, Archbishop Gebhard, from St. Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg. Built way back when in 1776 and designed by Joseph Hueber, the library is 70 meters long, 14 meters wide, and 13 meters high, and is gorgeously decorated in white and gold. The ceiling features seven cupolas that are decorated with frescoes by Bartolomeo Altomonte, which depict the various stages of human knowledge up to the point of divine revelation.
Fun random trivia fact: the entire design of the library was done in order to reflect the ideals and values of the Enlightenment. Who knew?
New York Public Library (U.S.)
No library list would be complete without the arguably most famous library in the United States! Last but certainly not least, the Stephan A. Schwarzman building is widely considered the main branch of the New York Public Library and is one of the most recognizable New York City landmarks today. Known for the two stone lions guarding its entrance alone with its famous frescoed ceilings and chandeliers in its beautiful main reading room, the original building was completed in 1911 and was built using 530,000 cubic feet of marble (woah!) and featured over 75 miles of shelves (double woah!).
The building has (naturally) been expanded over the last hundred years and now houses 15 million items with manuscripts written in 1,200 different languages and dialects. The library’s collection includes the earliest known copy of the “Nican Mopohua,” which is Luis Laso de la Vega’s 1649 account of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Tepeyac, along with more than 350 catalogued works of George Sand.
Now, if that doesn’t make you want to spend the next year traveling and visiting all the amazing libraries around the world, I don’t know what will. Obviously there are *many* libraries not included in this list, like the Library of Congress, for one, along with the briefly mentioned Bibliothèque nationale de France. Fret not, dear readers! They weren’t included because I forgot about them, but merely because there are too many amazing libraries to put into just one post and I didn’t want to overwhelm you with information overload. They will be in the next installment of Amazing Libraries From Around the World, along with many other libraries that didn’t make the cut for this first post. If your favorite library wasn’t on this list and you want to make sure it’s featured on the next one, let me know and I’ll make sure it makes the cut next time.