Lady in Red sweeps Sweden’s northern metropolis off her feet

Swedish politicians – and they are not the only ones in the world – like to take their ti- me. The citizens of Luleå in Swedish Lap- land have been waiting for a new culture centre for fifty years, just as for several years they have petitioned for a new main library. But suddenly the many prelimina- ries resulted in action, and in early January of this year an all-embracing ‘House of Culture’ was inaugurated, which includes a new main library at the heart of it.

Already in the late 1930s Luleå Orchestra Association was on the lookout for a concert hall, and in 1948 a culture centre was mentioned for the first, but by no means last, time in the municipal council’s protocol. But despite the steadily increasing public demand for concert facilities, political awareness and action were sadly lacking. The libraries fared somewhat better. With city architect John Berglund’s building jammed up against the City Hotel, Luleå in 1965 got a purpose-built main library for the first time, a library which by virtue of its architectonic qualities heralded a veritable golden age for the library cause. Surprisingly quickly the physical framework became hopelessly outdated and restrictive for any new development and desirable impact. So also in this case, several of the town’s citizens were clamouring for concrete action.

The political decision-making process did not get off the ground, though, until endeavours to get a concert hall and public opinion in favour of the new main library joined forces in order to try to get the two things housed under the same roof. Luleå’s library director Britt-Inger Rönnqvist was the first person to advocate such a course in the local press, but it was Karl Petersen, mayor of Luleå since 1992, who wholeheartedly approved of the idea and persuaded his political colleagues to the extent that the building of a ‘House of Culture’ and all the rest of it was approved by an almost unanimous municipal council in September 2003. And then things started to move at a furious pace. The first spit was taken in April 2005, and in January 2007 the house was inaugurated under great festivities and a cornucopia of events. As Karl Petersen pointed out in his inaugural address: “The building process took no longer than in the 1950s I needed for making a bookshelf”.

‘Lady in red’, as the building is called, is designed by architects Tirsén & Aili. It is on four levels and measures 14,000 square metres in all. There is a car park on two levels beneath the house. The building expenses were estimated at 370 mil. SEK (about 41 mil. Euro) – and the budget was not overrun. The house is admirably placed in downtown Luleå and has a view of Norra Hamnen so breathtakingly beautiful that even the most prosaic soul must surrender. Apart from the library the house has i.a. three exhibition rooms, conference and meeting facilities, restaurant and café, a small hall and a large concert hall with electro acoustics and with room for about 1,000 people. The house is so dimensioned as to be able to accommodate 3,500 at the same time.

Luleå (73,000 inhabitants) lies about 1,000 kilometres to the north of Stockholm and 100 to the south of the Polar Circle. During a visit to Luleå with the building process in its final phase, the then Swedish prime minister, Göran Persson, upon looking at the nearly finished culture centre, is said to have called the house “a diamond the radiance of which will shine all over Bottenviken”. A little more down-to-earth, but no less enthusiastic, were the words of Karl Petersen. In his welcome speech to the hundreds of citizens who had turned up for the inauguration, he compared the House of Culture to the sugar mills he as a very young man had encountered in the 1950s in Southern Sweden. “We need both the sugar mill and the culture centre in order to survive. We need sugar for the body to grow, and we need culture for our souls to grow”.

Mayor Karl Petersen considers the library to be the heart of the House of Culture. The library’s public area is 3,500 square metres, distributed on three levels. Add to this offices and stacks. The library can also use the conference and meeting facilities and book the large or the small hall. The library staff has not increased in number with the move, but there are now self-service facilities in connection with loans and returns. Opening hours have been extended to a total of 54 hours per week and Sunday opening has been introduced; and the library has received an extra grant of 1 mil. SEK for the acquisition of books, music, e-books and database licenses etc. Another important thing is that all twelve library branches in the municipality are intact, and that a brand new mobile library from Finland is on its way.

As opposed to conditions in the old main library, where the children did not get a fair deal, the children’s library has been given the most easily accessible placing in the new culture centre, namely just inside the entrance, to the right. It is designed in cooperation with Teknikkens Hus in Luleå’s univer sity area, and in cooperation with artist Anna Almqvist and the children, a completely new, icon-based location system for the materials has been introduced. In design and profiling great emphasis has been placed on the physical children’s library entering into a rich and ingenious symbiosis with the net library with web newspaper for children (www.barnenspolarbibliotek. se) launched by Norrbotten Libraries the first in the country.

The large trade union, SKTF, has appointed Luleå ‘Cultural Municipality’ in Sweden in 2007, and this is mainly due to the initiative in relation to the new culture centre and main library. But it is also due to the will both on behalf of politicians and staff to fill the house with life and fervour, and ingeniously and purposefully to exploit the possibilities of underpinning the crossfertilization and interplay between the many players of the house and cultural impressions and initiatives.

Per Nyeng
nnc.nyeng AT

Per Nyeng is a journalist and former editor of
From 1965 to 1969 he worked as a librarian in Luleå.

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Per Nyeng is a journalist and former editor of Bibliotek70/Bibliotekspresssen. From 1965 to 1969 he worked as a librarian in Luleå.