At Woollahra Library in Double Bay, Sydney, the focus is just as much on people as it is about books. Designed by BVN, it is a lively space for exploration and community connection.
The entrance to the new Woollahra Library in Sydney’s Double Bay has a thriving vertical garden and devil’s ivy cascading from levels above. This vibrant greenery was an underlying design concept for the project, derived from the much-loved heritage gardens of the library’s previous site, but it also reads as a metaphor for the library itself. Libraries, like gardens, are places of growth – places to learn new skills, to gain knowledge, to develop ideas. They also fill another important civic role as a dynamic, versatile and connective hub for the community.
Woollahra Library opened in 2016 with the design by BVN. Part of a new development with other commercial and retail buildings, the library is a buzzing hive of comforts and conven-iences that sees eager patrons arrive before opening hours. It has been designed to attract a broad range of demographics and by offering a variety of spaces, programs, activities, events and resources, the library now serves as a play area, study centre, work space, meeting point, information source, function centre, book custodian, record keeper and support centre.
Making all this work in a two-thousand-square-metre area across three levels required clever and successful space planning. BVN created a flexible floor plan with zones that cater for different age groups, purposes and noise levels.
On the first level, the traditional “shush” has been replaced with screams of delight as children play, read and do arts and crafts. Its design evokes the concept of a garden with tree-like columns, grass-green rugs and suspended paper-art birds. The building’s architecture proves as interactive as the books within it, encouraging children’s inquisitive nature. Stairs are for climbing and cosy caves for curling up in, and a red slide transports children into a colourful reading area surrounded by a “very hungry caterpillar” of books and a tropical mural by Sydney artist Mulga. It is a place for making childhood memories and in the context of learning.
The wide staircase is a functional and social space. Leading to the second level, it also serves as seating and as a theatrette for movies and events. The noise dims on level two, where stacks of books, DVDs, magazines and newspapers appear more like a conventional library. But don’t be fooled – there’s also a youth’s tech room with computers and PlayStations, and a second technology zone with desktops and iPads for members. A variety of seating caters for different levels of privacy, productivity and purposes: high school students take up seats and tables around the glass perimeter of the building, university students snag the enclosed pods and older patrons pull up comfortable armchairs.
Level three is quieter yet, with subdued lighting and ambience and dark leather lounge seating around a cosy fireplace. Freelancers, workers and students settle in on this level, which almost functions like a co-working space. There are chairs and tables, booths and meeting rooms and patrons are allowed to bring food and drink, encouraging them to stay all day. Book stacks undulate around the edge of the space and a local history section makes documents and records easily accessible.
There is warmth and rhythm to the library’s spaces and design details, which foster and echo the library’s friendly and vibrant energy. Timber trim and white birch ply walls are tactile, and the Aspen timber-slatted ceiling emphasizes the organic-shaped voids that punctuate each level and allow natural light to filter into the spaces below. These voids connect the levels and spaces of the library, giving wholeness to the environment and encouraging it to be explored. Indeed, as BVN principal Bill Dowzer describes, “It’s almost like a treehouse, it has to be explored.”
All the behind-the-scenes elements and spaces are cleverly concealed and much of the book-lending process is automated. Librarians are no longer stationed at desks, but rather circulate with an iPad and phone to help patrons as needed.
Throughout the library there is also a playful and abstract language of pixelated plywood blocks affixed to the wall – the centrepiece arrangement is inscribed with members’ names and the title of their favourite book. It reinforces the notion that this library is for and about the community, which is also evident in how well the community has embraced it. There has been a 40 percent increase in circulation, four thousand new members and, on average, 2,500 visitors per day since the new library opened.
Libraries have always held a valued place as hubs of information, knowledge and learning – and now as hubs for the community. While Woollahra Library may be a library in name, the main emphasis here is on people, not books. As a space designed for exploration and connection, it is a place for people and the community to learn, interact and grow.