Gunārs Birkerts: The National Library of Latvia: the Idea of the Project

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Gunārs Birkerts

This architectural idea of the National Library of Latvia appeared 20 years ago and turned into one of the widely recognised harbingers of the new age in architecture.

The British historian of architecture Peter Buchanam has said that the architecture of a nascent age should "surpass and contain". The new should be created by absorbing and synthesising teachings of both historical and local, as well as the contemporary architecture.

It leads to the thought that contemporary architecture should be like a bridge crossing the borders of time – rooted in the past, looking towards the future. The need appears to create a new language of form, a language that would treat the previous ones with respect.

Looking at the building we see an intriguing form. It is visually attractive to us. What is it like? It is expressive. It is a library, a functional symbol. It is a reminder of an outstanding historical event, important for Latvia, the making of its statehood, as well as praise to the rebirth of the state and its renewed collections of cultural treasures.

The linear nature of words fail to describe fully the three dimensional architectural shape. As to the expressivity the form has many meanings.

To perceive its meaning, it we have to return to the feelings and intuition that accompanied the moment of creation.

This architecture tells about the merging of humanism and culture, it carries references to history, folklore, literature, music and visual art.

Moreover, it expresses the architect’s love of his land and its history.

  • It tells of green fields and meadows, of many-coloured flowers;
  • It tells of dark pine forests and white birch groves;
  • It tells of slowly flowing, dark, dreamy rivers, their streams are so slow, that at times it seems that they are flowing backwards;
  • The landscape is flat and slightly sloping, its highest mountain – Gaiziņš, is only 12 metres higher than the Eiffel Tower;
  • It tells of the ever present folklore, of the human emotions expressed in the folk songs and legends. Legends of the determination that will make a brilliant castle rise up from the dark waters. It tells of the courageous riders riding up the mountain of ice to save the princess. It takes a strong will and persistence to accomplish it.

Turning to the influences upon the form of the building, we recognise the architecture of rural farmsteads, with layers of Riga’s historical architectural manifestations over it.

All these metaphors have contributed to the sketch of the contemporary library shape. This new shape carries individuality and power to engage in a dialogue with the historical architecture on the opposite bank of the Daugava.

I call this synthesis of metaphors soul; it creates the expressivity of the external appearance of the new National Library of Latvia building. And then there is the soul, which is reflected in the interior.

The new age has brought with it computer, and also globalisation.

The new National Library of Latvia with its collections of culture of national importance has been intended and ready to participate in the global network of electronic communications and systems of information technologies.

This is an important part of the interior "soul" of the building.