Conjuring a state-of-the-art university library out of a gap in the urban fabric – literally the space between two historic structures – ranks pretty high on the scale of interior challenges. We rose to the occasion with a warm, welcoming and contemporary library space that nevertheless embraces history. The new University of Amsterdam (UvA) library for the humanities fittingly has a foot in both past and present.
University of Amsterdam
Interior design, Education
The Binnengasthuis, an ancient corner of the city, started life as the site of a medieval convent. Later, it housed a pioneering hospital complex. When the hospital closed in the 1970s, the site was acquired by the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and earmarked for redevelopment as a new library for the humanities. There was just one small problem: the need to retain the existing site, with its protected buildings, largely as it was.
The solution, which we arrived at in collaboration with Van Stigt architects, connects the two buildings (the Tweede Chirurgische Kliniek, the old hospital, and the Zusterhuis, or former nurses’ home) by means of a facetted glass roof. The outdoor site then becomes the unique atrium around which the new library is organized. The new atrium ‘contemporizes’ the old structures, while it allows us to retain all of their character-defining details, including the old façades, corridor structure and stairwells.
“A facetted glass roof encloses a dramatic atrium, in an interesting meeting of interior and exterior qualities.”
The paved, triangular expanse between the old buildings is reclaimed as a unique indoor/outdoor space, thanks to the glass roof, with its intriguing facetted pattern. An eye-catching feature staircase, its organic shaped resembling a tree, is inserted into the new atrium. A second floor – the entrance area of the library – hovers above the former outside space, curving around the central void. This floor houses the library reception and information desk and a variety of places to sit and work.
The ground floor level now becomes the library basement, a floor down from the entrance level. With its trees and paved covering, the atrium retains its outdoor character, adding contrast to the interior design. A variety of seating options, some around the resident tree, allows students to enjoy the abundant daylight. On one side, a glass-fronted study room adds to the options while retaining the light, open structure of the atrium.
A university library – even in this digital age – means books: and plenty of them. Where to put them, however, in a building that was never designed for them? We solved the dilemma by meticulously mapping out the shelving requirements, using every inch of available space. In total, our design accommodates no less than 8.5km of books.
Students and library employees were consulted at several phases in the design. Their requirements varied greatly – so we naturally responded by designing a wide variety of study spaces, work and meeting rooms. These range from informal, lounge-like areas in the corridors and atriums, to more traditional desk or table arrangements in quiet niches, to shared areas for consultation and teaching. Teaching rooms offer multifunctional options thanks to mobile furniture or multi-use podium structures.
The library is designed as a place for study, interaction and collaboration. As such, there are spaces for all of these functions. From the students, we learned that their most pressing need is places for ‘high-intensity study’ – concentrated individual work. We therefore provided plenty of spacious high-intensity study spaces, mostly equipped with adjustable chairs for comfort. Tables are standard sizes, but with some variation in height.
Middle-intensity study areas offer students the opportunity to work together on assignments and offer comfort and flexibility for groups. Informal low-intensity study spaces are mainly located in more public areas, such as corridors and halls.
In addition to the range of individual study spaces, we added a playful variety of room options to our interior design. The brainstorming room, for example, consists entirely of whiteboard walls – perfect for capturing and explaining ideas. The green room, finished in all-organic materials and centered around a tree, harnesses the learning-inducing effects of nature. An offline room offers an escape from digital background noise, its cocoon-like arrangement providing a retreat from technology and a place for pure contemplation.
Colour is a powerful carrier of meaning. In the library, we opted for a subdued colour palette which fits with the historical character of the old buildings, while adding warmth and atmosphere to the interior. To add vibrancy and a contemporary touch, we added brighter accents within the same colour spectrum – typically using these for furniture and other details. In addition, every floor has its own basic colour signature. This colour zoning helps with orientation.
Throughout the building, the Saint Andrew’s cross – a motif inspired by the University of Amsterdam’s logo – has been subtly incorporated into both floors and walls, bringing the historic structure up to date.