Oslo public library looks for an architect

Great ambitions as
Five architect’s offices tussle for the prestigious asignment of designing the new Oslo public library. Library director, Liv Sæteren, confirms that her aim is to create the world’ leading public library.

Thirteen years have passed since the last train left Oslo westbound station and despite its favourable location in one of the capital’s busiest streets,this site never became the home of any shopping mall. Only recently, this was a dull spot characterised by traffic noise and exhaust fume. But after the through traffic was directed into tunnels, a pleasant piazza emerged on the Oslo waterfront. Today searching for a more exquisite location in Norway’s capital is labours lost. This is where Oslo’s new public library will be built.

This is a tremendous project with a price tag of 440 million US $ that will improve library conditions and services radically. Since 1932, Oslo’s city library has been situated at Hammersborg, a somewhat remote area, where béton brut style government offices eclipse the library building. In the 1930s, this library was considered the most modern of metropolitan libraries in Scandinavia but already on the opening day the library’s facade seemed a bit passé to contemporary beholders. Decades have past since someone first concluded that a new library was required, and a move has been debated continuously for the past fifteen years. Good and not quite so good solutions have been put forward according to the library director, Liv Sæteren. She certainly ought to know: over the years the director has inspected some twenty- five possible building sites of which the vast majority have seemed viable. Liv Sæteren has responded equally enthusiastically to all propositions, regardless of their degree of realism or their amount of popular support. – I have remained optimistic no matter what,she concludes, even though I have been ridiculed and heavily criticised because of my optimism.

Of course not all ideas have been equally fantastic, and Liv Sæteren shudders as she mentions the now abandoned plans for a subterranean library of seven storeys in the present library buildings’ backyard with a pathetic crystal glass pyramid on its top. And only some years ago Oslo’s giant Postal terminal was launched as a possible solution.Sæteren still feels that this mastodon offered an unique possibility of staging the perfect urban library. It could have turned out beautifully or hideously, a library analogy of turning Bankside Power Station into Tate Modern, disregarding the chimney.

About a year has passed since all pieces fell into place. After years of fruitless struggle,the phone rang in the library director’s office. – All of a sudden, she recalls, I was told a majority in the Oslo city council supported the construction of a new main public library building. I hurried to the city hall, where an afternoon with a great deal of handshaking, interviewing, posing in front of photographers began.I felt happy, but I more or less immediately started to focus on how to pull off the project.

Liv Sæteren hoped to open the new library in 2005. This would have been a perfect year to start for two reasons. Firstly, the opening would coincide with the one hundred year anniversary of Norway’s national independence. Secondly, in 2005 the Norwegian capital hosts the IFLA congress and it would undoubtedly have been a privilege to welcome delegates to the world’s latest public library. However, the construction process is impossible to predict,and the opening is more likely to take place in 2007.

It is enjoyable just to listen to Liv Sæteren speaking of how she aims to create the world’s most exciting public library. She refers to it as a library for a new era, an example of paramount library architecture and interior design. And she is very convincing indeed.She has dedicated herself to building the best city library and it seems likely, she will succeed.

The question is what does it take to build the greatest library in the world? – One key factor to success is of course to pick a winning concept and then to play in tune with the chosen office. But it will be equally significant to increase competency within our own library organisation, to build a squad, to recruit untraditionally, to grow and develop.

- Where do you find models of inspiration, which is the world’s best library today in your opinion? – Well, Sæteren explains, I usually maintain that it is yet to be built – in Oslo. A lot of libraries are beautiful, architectonic masterpieces. But libraries built to change the content of library services radically are rare. I have not seen one. Our aim is to implement something new, to tailor new work environments around library users, to dissolve traditional library typologies. That is the definition of our challenge.

Five architect’s offices of international reknown tussled to be chosen for this prestigious Oslo assignment, offices with a global range. The deadline was set for May 2002 whereupon the winning concept would be announced before the 1st of July. Then remains the building process.

The Oslo City library has for a long time been the poorest metropolitan library in Scandinavia. Now, tables are turning regarding library content, image and framework. Also the director’s position will turn more favourable.

- It will of course be much more inspiring to govern a massive success than to administer an item of expenditure, Liv Sæteren concludes. She hopes to have some glorious years at the new City library. Then the stage is set for a successor.

A winner is declared
On 26. June the Dutch firm OMA, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, was declared the winner of the competition. Taking in the Stenersen Museum, the new library will be shaped as an individual building, a flat ’tube’ which links together the other buildings. The jury, precided over by Oslo spokesman, Per Ditlev-Simonsen, explained that the decision was based on the fact that the project is original, it has architectural qualities which will make it a great attraction, it contains a splendid organisational principle with the library at the centre, and has the potential for satifying the commercial goals of the developer.

Tokyo-based Ito & Associates have achieved some international acclaim for the Sendai Media building in Northern Japan, which contains a library, art galleries and a multiplex cinema. In Sendai Ito used transparency, pulsing light and the concept of blurring – a move in order to erase boundaries between the interior and the exterior, meant to avoid edginess in the design.

The greatest celebrity in the architect competition was OMA, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Rotterdam, founded in the mid-1970s by the illustrious Dutchman Rem Koolhaas, who is often referred to as the most influential architect today. Having an anarchistic reputation, Koolhaas is known to run a foolhardy and experimental office which neither hesitates to challenge traditional aesthetics nor ponders too much about clients’ wishes. But results tend to speak for themselves and OMA has accomplished some really spectacular architecture, like the new Seattle public library to be finished next year, 2003.

A third contestant was Lord Norman Foster/Foster and Partners (London) – well-known as responsible for modernising the South London area Elephant & Castle. Other projects by Foster and Partners is the new media centre at California State University and the development of the West Kowloon area on the Hong Kong waterfront.

The Norway-based architect office Niels Torp (Oslo) in partnership with KHR (Copenhagen) was the fourth participating constellation. Torp is well-known to Scandinavian travellers for the design of Greater Oslo’s new airport, Gardermoen while their Danish associates were the creative minds behind the new Copenhagen subway system, the Copenhagen Metro.

Finally, Meili & Peter, architects from Zürich, were invited. Ecology and utilisation of wooden material has become the trademark of this Swiss twosome. The Zentrum für den globalen Dialog in the town Rüschlikon is an often referred to manifestation of their ecological style.

LINK: Photoes of the projects