Biblioteca Vasconcelos: The $100 million Library

Biblioteca Vasconcelos is a $100 million library with sawtooth windows spanning wide above floating bookshelves. It is a massive rectangular affair, longer than a football field with seven, maybe eight stories going upward. Well, stories isn’t quite the right word. More like seven or eight landing levels with bookshelves.

Each level has a hallway running building-long with exit hallways to six stacked rows of books. Each of these stacks has its own landing, some of which extend out into the vacant space of the middle, some of which sit inside, but all are entirely exposed to the Vasconcelos openness.

The effect is a steel pattern of boxes that hang above any dweller who walks in and looks up. What is the pattern? It’s hard to tell—but there is one. Assuredly there is one. And what does it feel like to go up into these landings? It feels like floating, floating with books, floating with the support of steel wire frames that hold up the landing, the books, the people, the stairs, the hallways, and everything else.

If that doesn’t give you a picture, here’s an actual picture (not by me).

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Dewey In Verticality!

In Biblioteca Vasoncelos, there is space everywhere, even where there are books. Especially where there are books.

Libraries usually don’t do this. They do not usually give their books space. They give their space books.

Because most libraries are stations of economy. They are not taking profits to build bigger shelves or wider walls. They are trying to fit their readymade purpose with a quantity befitting.

But Vasconcelos is different. It is almost an absurdity of a library, at least in comparison to your something local. It is made in grandeur. The main architect of the project, Alberto Kalach, said he wanted, “the creation of an ark, carrier of human knowledge.”

And it is like a ship, an ark. At times economical with its space like a sailboat and but mostly concerned with keeping the enterprise wide. Wide enough for buoyancy. Its airiness gives it and you that feeling of floating.

It has areas for seating, for public communing, and rooms for rent, but it has wide open spaces to refresh your singular existence. It is not crowded here but it cannot possibly feel empty to anyone. Not with what’s happening above them. Not with whats hanging over their heads.

On the longer two sides, the building is flanked by a garden. More on the east side, where the garden is extensive, almost wild with tall plants and dirty walking paths. There’s greenery on the west side of it but less. Not far away is a mall and a huge train station. Thousands are passing through there in different stages of rush. Thousands will come through Vasconcelos but it’s not in a rush. Public spaces have their own pace.

Inside though, at the train station and the mall, no one is looking up. No one is admiring–with their eyes or with the camera on their phones. The mall, like the library, dwarfs a single human in its size. But malls are not meant to dwarf, malls are meant to quarantine offinto smaller spaces, where people feel big, and wealthy, and rich.

Vasconcelos is a functioning monument where almost everyone is transfixed in admiration. And if they’re not, their soul must be reliving the sublime of another time. They’re just silent about it all.

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Inside Vasconcelos is something like 500,000 books, stacked in their six row templates. Each is part of a steel contraption, and obviously there are hundreds of these. To get to these books on these racks is a journey. And why shouldn’t it be? Certainly each book is a journey. Why not a journey to the journey?

The journey starts with stairs which hang on steel wires—a bit like hanging ladders—leading to discovery. These sit outside the books, with the words and bones in the center. This is just like us, like our bodies, or like a book with a strong spine. It’s all a collection of loose shoots, ladders, and halls but in the end it all looks abominably sturdy.

The rest of it is an exercise in the un-economy of space. So much exposure. So much empty room. Why? Well, it gives the library room to expand. It gives the citizen a journey to get to a book. It gives the sunlight a chance to slink in through the window and land its rays somewhere.

It gives so much space. That’s okay. It’s an exposed and vulnerable space and what could be more perfect. It is the great house of so much emotional exposure of its authors. There are books, like buildings, that when they bare their entirety it’s 30,000 square meters of room to maneuver in.

Space is vital here. Space is books, the area around which letters are formed (think of letters chiseled away from a block of black ink the way that David was chiseled away from marble) and a book makes space in its sentences, in its flow. There’s a space between reader and book that’s obstructed by the eyes to fully engage. There’s a space when you open a book, and little spaces when you close it where the words still breath.

This all leads to the beginning here. Perhaps you’ve had the question on your mind:

Why do you build a $100 million library?

The same reason you build a $1 million dollar library, or a $1 library in your front yard. To provide space for the communion of mind and knowledge.

Here, there is space enough for an ark-full of minds—to float down the great rivers of wisdom, the seas of possibility, the deluge of everything we deserve to learn.

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