Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects

In Aarhus, Dokk1 merges old and new concepts of how a public place for learning should function.

It’s hard not feel as if you’ve just visited the library of the future after spending a day at Dokk1.

In a formerly industrial part of Aarhus, egg chairs are now sprinkled around the periphery of the massive new “hybrid library.” There, a three-ton tubular bell called The Gong echoes through every time a child is born at the local hospital. Outside, a ferry to Copenhagen comes and goes from the harbor while kids and adults play across a field with teeter-totters, a tire swing, and a huge slide in the shape of an eagle.

Opened in 2015, Dokk1 is more than Scandinavia’s largest library—it’s a community hub that meets the changing needs of Denmark’s second largest city. Last summer, Dokk1 was named the Public Library of the Year by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). As the notion that libraries simply serve as a home for books dissolves, Dokk1 merges old and new concepts of what a library should be.

(Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects)

Marie Østergård, the library’s project leader who spearheaded the library’s ten-year planning process, says there was no blueprint for the type of library the city government envisioned. The only thing to do was to consult the community. “We knew what we wanted to build wasn’t something we could already describe,” says Østergård. “What you see right now is basically a big puzzle piece that has come together using many different ideas and knowledge from many different arenas,” she adds. “We were perpetually asking, ‘What kind of functions do we want in a future library? What are the city’s needs and where is the world going?’”

The result is less a home for books and more a space for people. “We have this metaphor, that we could take all the bookshelves, put them in the main square of the city, put a roof on the building and then you would have the main library,” says Kim Holst Jensen, senior partner at Schmidt Hammer Lassen, the architects behind Dokk1.

The spaceship-like structure houses the library, a municipal service center for residents and newcomers where citizens can pick up their identification card, renew their passports, and register with the municipality; a cafe, ample space for families, public computers, three playgrounds and lecture halls. If you take an escalator down to the lower level, you’ll find Europe’s largest fully automated and robotic underground parking lot, where you can watch your car disappear into the floor, like something out of a James Bond movie.

Although Dokk1 offers myriad services for the modern engaged citizen, Østergård says they wanted to construct a building to meet people’s basic human needs. “We all need to grow as human beings—sometimes we want to be alone, sometimes we want to contemplate, sometimes we want to be together… we wanted to construct a building that could meet those needs,” says Østergård. “The whole idea of the interior has been to create these different types of places to be, and try to focus on the things that are important to us in the physical space.”

The building itself is transparent, with a glass facade that wraps around the entire structure, illuminating the monochrome interior with elusive Scandinavian sunlight. It integrates the landscape of the city and the river as a wallpaper when you’re inside it. “You feel this connection to the city when you’re in the library—the scenery is a movie you have all around you,” says Jensen.

Inside, the massive open-plan, two-storey structure features diverse types of study spaces, play spaces, and meeting spaces which can be transformed by shifting the furniture and bookshelves around to meet the changing needs of the users. Sidsel Bech-Petersen, a “library transformer” at Dokk1, says having open flexible spaces is essential. “A library is not a permanent thing, it’s an ongoing co-creation process,” she notes. “Users just move the furniture around and we can’t really control it—and that’s good, because it shows us they feel like this is their own space.”

(Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects)

To foster this feeling of being in a town square ready to flourish in the digital age, there are new conditions that have to be met. What can bring people together, and what was a driving force of Dokk1’s design process, is the idea of play. “You learn through playing, and play is important in its own right. It’s what makes us human beings, it creates a social environment, and it’s a way we learn to be together as people,” says Østergård.

Bech-Petersen says bringing in new technologies created new activities, and helped shape new ways people used the library. For example, Dokk1 has an interactive floor where you can play with the cursor using your body. “If you’re playing with the interactive floor and another user is standing on the other side, then he or she would pull the cursor towards themselves, so you have to talk to each other to interact with this thing,” says Bech-Petersen. “Young people could easily figure it out, so they played around with it, and then they started explaining it to elderly users who were standing around wondering, ‘what is this thing?’”

Since Dokk1 opened in June 2015, its user numbers have skyrocketed. “We had 1,800 visitors per day, and now we have 3,800 visitors, seven days a week,” says Østergård.

“This shows us that we’ve been starving part of the population because we’ve been so focused on books and literature as knowledge formats,” Østergård adds. “My guess is that there has been an unmet need in society that’s now being addressed — that’s my hope, anyway.”

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