The State Library of Queensland is both a research library of ‘last resort’ and a flagship facility for the entire Queensland library system. The redeveloped building skilfully negotiates these two roles, helping to reinvent the library as an institut
The new concrete surfaces of the State Library of Queensland building are mostly green. There is a box on the northern facade of the building where the concrete is red, inside and out. And the visible concrete work of the 1980s carapace, on which Donovan Hill and Peddle Thorp have done their thing, retains the beige of the rest of the South Bank arts citadel. But it is the green – several shades, dominating the lower levels of the building exterior – that takes you by surprise and keeps surprising as you look at it again. They really made it green? (Well, you couldn’t have a blue building, the architect cryptically says. Huh?) The pigment is disposed across the concrete in smallish rectangular zones. They are a bit blurry at their edges.
The concrete is the main exterior building material, especially on that part of the library adjacent to the new approaches to South Bank from Stanley Place. The concrete work is rough; it bears various imprints from the construction process, a pattern quite distinct from that organizing the green. Colour, then, disguises the marks of building that might be otherwise construed as imperfections, but not in the usual way of architecture now: to feign perfection with sheets of glass or Alucobond or (especially in Queensland) screens of timber battens. The green is as imperfect as the concrete. The veiling it achieves is modest; it works by multiplying details or imperfections to render each one of them unimportant. Or rather, blemish and embellishment become indistinguishable. This gives the building an indeterminate look but one which is also mesmerizing.
The deployment of green exemplifies the lateral approaches to design throughout this building. Everywhere, a kind of anti-monumental monumentality is attempted and mostly it is significantly achieved. There is a frank acceptance of the constraints of brief, site and an assertive existing building. But the care that these things called for – and the expectation that the architecture of such a significant institution be something – is worn by the building with grace.
Somewhere there had to be a big blank box for collection storage. It has been raised off the ground as the upper portion of the library building that is entirely new. This entails a lot of structural work and blind walls but also makes the lower levels available for people. Furthermore, it establishes a large scale. The strategy of the gauzy green adorning the concrete is echoed by the more explicit veiling of copper fins and vertical translucent strips that surround the upper levels on this side of the building. This screen maintains scale and singularity – it lets the volume of the accumulated library collections literally be the monument – but again it profuses detail. It casts shadows; it dissolves edges; it appears to change with light conditions through the day, and at night as it is variously illuminated. It is often quite beautiful.
The site organization of South Bank’s new precinct is apparently driven by a desire to connect as directly as possible the old Queensland Art Gallery and the new Gallery of Modern Art. This disavows the previous pattern of movement indicated along the riverside terraces. The place of the library in this new logic is frankly subsidiary (which says something about institutional hierarchies that is even more overt in the longstanding exile of the Queensland Museum at the arse-end of the art gallery). The library is apprehended as a (rather fuzzy) monumental mass arrayed with the other monuments either side of it in a public space orchestrated as a massive architectural display. But through the proliferation of incident close up, the multiplication of scales without hierarchy, the building becomes intimate. Inside, it suggests that a different attitude to public space is also being proffered. Or rather, its dissolution of the inside/outside distinction suggests this. Between the part of the library building built on the old and the part new from the ground up is a high atrium whose scale contrasts with the relatively low void that signage indicates is the main approach. Gathered around this atrium is a cafe, a bookshop, a part of the library that houses both a new electronic Infozone and the kuril dhagun Indigenous Knowledge Centre that needs must be as accessible as possible, and – separately – a reception area and public entry point to those parts of the library on upper levels that require substantial security. They include an auditorium, exhibition spaces, reading rooms for those using conventional library materials, and heritage collections. The Indigenous centre connects to a “talking circle” outside the building on the north-western side, delineated with complex formal and iconographic elements.
The atrium is a truly public interior space, inside the building but not yet inside an institution or commercial entity, not part of the exterior but directly connected to it. The atrium has balconies accommodating circulation between various parts of the library, and thus as you walk around the place you move in and out of spaces with different kinds of ambient qualities. But it is the public gesture of the atrium that is really interesting: while the library proper can be closed when the atrium remains open, the atrium’s openness suggests a new propensity to accessibility in the institution of the State Library itself. The library has indeed taken rebuilding as an opportunity to make itself more accessible, from the Infozone electronic access on Level 1 to the open access to significant heritage collections on Level 4. And the atrium is very open, sliced from one end to the other by a high slot of space that can be traversed by pedestrians, joggers, cyclists. Perhaps it does not visually offer them what they expect such an august institution should, but, more importantly, it might nevertheless lend itself to becoming part of their routines. Along with the cafe and shop, various appropriately scaled furnishings may make them linger – a beautifully crafted timber rack for pamphlets, a cabinet containing illuminated lists of library benefactors, a large table.
These things have a domestic air – the atrium is a sort of anteroom akin to the indeterminate spaces in some Donovan Hill houses. There are other elements in the library design that have a displaced but homely quality. In front of the building is a gigantic billboard featuring a wallpaperish pattern of leaves at two different scales. While we might at first be reminded of Herzog and de Meuron, the recurrence of this pattern in the pink carpet found inside the building suggests suburban lounges and bedrooms. There is also a place for the best china from the old front room: a deep, high, sheltered terrace connected to the Level 2 auditorium features cabinets built into the side walls to house a collection of delicate teacups. Whimsical perhaps, but perhaps also a not-so-whimsical assertion about the deportments public buildings entail: familiar or recuperated comforts need not be excluded.
But the propositions made here are not just about intimacy and intricacy. From the sides of the building, the atrium slot is signalled by large formal gestures that suggest that these are really the principal entries to the building. This implies that the overall site organization of this new part of South Bank might have offered a public domain configured differently: not as residual space between spectacular architectural objects, but instead as a spatial sequence through and between buildings, with opportunities for public urbanity – tea, coffee and all – within the very project of public building.
Expanding scale is also at stake in the transformations to the Robin Gibson part of the complex. Located here are public access to library collections and information sources – electronic, conventional print and special materials – and library work areas. The floor-to-floor dimensions are meagre as only limited demolition was possible (mostly to raze the upper-level connection to the terraces in front of the art gallery that used to be the means of public entry to the library). However, a double-height reading room has been made by pushing the building envelope out where the concrete terraces of the original building used to recede at the middle of the riverfront facade. Decks on Level 1 also step out toward the river beyond the old building envelope, and there are no security reasons to stop them being completely external. These decks have wonderful spaces, especially one under a gloriously spreading poinciana.
The effects of the changes to Gibson’s original are more sympathetic visually than this description might suggest. An allusion can be seen in the roof-line of Gibson’s South Bank complex to the profile of the ranges visible in the far distance to the south-west. While the additions made to the riverfront and top of the State Library do not maintain the line or the visual weight of the original, or the dominance of the concrete terraces that perhaps reflected hill forms, the tectonic lightness of the additions is a better strategy than trying to mimic the old. The changed appearance of the library from across the river suggests a softening, which itself could be construed as an extension of the landscape metaphor in the original, as if vegetation or perhaps clouds have shrouded it and made its outline less distinct.
However, it is the attention of the new architecture to the closer view that is most compelling. As the Red Box on the building’s river frontage makes apparent, this is not just a matter of looking at the architecture, but also from it. The interior of this volume is set up as an intimate, stepped auditorium, with a low strip of windows configured to give a view of the moving surface of the river adjacent. With the broader context of the usual view framed out, we look at the water’s surface as something new and beguiling.
- Peddle Thorp Architects (Qld)
Brisbane, Qld, Australia
- Project Team
- Timothy Hill, Brian Donovan, Frank Way, Jeffrey Briant, Brett Hudson, Damian Eckersley, Lucas Leo, Mark Floate, Greg Lamb, Fedor Medek, George Taran, Ron van Sluys, Ines Hallmond, Graham Mudge, Graham Hobbs, Rosario Distaco, David Evans, Mark Damant, Seth Remaut, Tanya McLachlan, Phil Hindmarsh, Kevin O'Brien, Michael Hogg, Lisa Matray, Yee Chong, Louise Hamilton, Paul Jones, Michael Moore, Chris Hing Fay, Ceirwen Burton, Ben Killeen, Eden Norris, Stephanie Donigi, Michael Rasi, Gary Cannon
- Donovan Hill
Audiovisual consultant Point of View
Building surveyor McKenzie Group
Electrical, security, communications & fire engineering Aurecon
Environmental consultant AEC
Equitable access consultant DAC
Hydraulic consultant Aurecon
Landscape consultant EDAW Gillespies
Lift services TDC
Managing contractor Lend Lease
Mechanical consultant Lincolne Scott
Programming consultant RCP
Project manager Project Services
Quantity surveyor Rawlinsons
Specialist lighting Vision Lighting
Structural and civil consultant Arup
Traffic consultant Arup
- Site details
Category Commercial / public buildings
- Project Details
State Library of Queensland
Published online: 1 Mar 2007
Words: Paul Walker
Architecture Australia, March 2007