Sergison Bates’ scheme for a new public library in Blankenberge, Belgium, is a lesson in how bring redundant buildings back to life
In 2004, everyone thought the book was dead,” says Stephen Bates. “Libraries were all to be about digital, fluid, open-plan space.”
It was the year that Sanaa unveiled its proposal for an undulating landscape of learning at EPFL in Lausanne, swooping mounds of wifi knowledge unshackled from the tyranny of the bookshelf. It was the time that David Adjaye’s barcode-clad Idea Stores pointed to a future of the library as a public living room, community hub and dance studio in one. It was a time when the arrival of the e-reader looked set to threaten print as we knew it.
It was also the year that Sergison Bates entered, and won, the open competition for a new public library in Blankenberge, a small seaside town on the coast of West Flanders, with a decidedly conventional notion of rooms with books in them. “We still had an idea of the library as a series of rooms with four corners, surrounded by books, with a view out to the city,” says Bates. Its scheme stood out precisely because of its radical simplicity.
The scheme was the only entry to propose retaining the late 19th century school building that was the allotted site for the project — rather than just its listed facade. All other schemes swept everything away behind the frontage, replacing the cellular rooms with big open floors in an approach symptomatic of what Bates describes as a general antipathy towards historic buildings in Belgium.
This attitude is particularly surprising in Blankenberge, a town that was heavily bombed during the first world war and has very few pre-20th century structures left. Together with the church and railway station, the school building constitutes the only remaining historic fabric, occupying an important place on the main thoroughfare from the station to the beach. Yet it had remained derelict for the past 20 years.
Sergison Bates’ scheme represents a careful process of excavating, lining and wrapping the existing building to make best possible use of its interior spaces — providing a supportive armature off which the enfilades of generously proportioned rooms with their 4m ceiling heights could once again thrive.
To the casual passer-by in the street, little appears to have changed. Either side of the school’s robust frontage of brick and rusticated stonework now stand two little wings: three- storey pavilions of dark grey brick, delineated with projecting concrete rails, inserted into former gaps to repair the line of the street. Bates describes these as “guardians” of the historic building, custodian bookends that reinstate its civic presence. Wrapped like ribbons onto the flanks of the existing structure, they are deferential, understated markings of what lies further within.
Each of these wings frame a ramped entrance to a pre-existing raised car park to the rear, a hidden courtyard in the middle of the urban block, loosely bordered by unprepossessing backs. Here the brick treatment extends almost 80m along the entire rear face of the library, a marching line of piers and openings, again separated by crisp concrete rails. The facade is articulated as a series of layers, the thin brick skin sliding back to reveal a shimmering metallic wrapping, flush with the glazing, like the layer of golden tissue beneath the mute lid in a box of Belgian chocolates, concealing something precious within.
At first glance, this rear elevation appears to have the same composition as those facing the street. In fact, it uses the same components, but deployed in a subtly different manner. To the street, the windows are pushed back by a full brick’s depth, while the rails project forward, giving a weighty civic articulation that echoes the string courses and cornice lines of the heavily encrusted 1883 frontage. To the courtyard, however, the facade takes on a stretched, curtain-like character, with reveals compressed to a brick width and rails barely protruding — the same elements flattened into a taut skin.
Closer examination reveals that the width of the windows and piers also varies subtly at either end, the brick panels slimming while the glazing widens, as if the set of curtains has been drawn back, bunched up at either side of the facade. The bricks are also apparently laid in a bond with a vertical joint that is wider than the horizontal, to give a more “woven” impression, although this, like the changing rhythm of panels, is barely perceptible in the built reality.
Another difference between the front and rear elevations that you might miss, if you didn’t have the architect with you, is that the position of the windows themselves has been inverted. Along the front they sit at the top of their bronze anodised frames, while along the rear, south-west facing, facade they sit lower in the frame, flush with the floor. While the depth helps prevent too much solar gain, it also serves to direct the gaze downwards and gives a different character to these interior spaces — inspired by the first floor of the Smithsons’ Upper Lawn pavilion at their weekend home in Wiltshire, where the floor-level windows provide a greater feeling of connection with the landscape outside.
Source: Kristien Daem
But here it seems these moves had as much to do with exterior composition as anything. “We are always keen to avoid those impotent, static facades of dead repetition,” says Bates. “We are interested in how to bring energy to the elevation, how a seemingly autonomous order can be disrupted by context.”
The project also explores the practice’s ongoing interest in the difference between the interior and exterior logic of a building — the formal, urban responsibility of the facade, as independent from the irregular organisation of the spaces it conceals. Bates cites Hardwick Hall and Schinkel’s Feilner House in Berlin as key inspirations, both of which dissemble their interior complexity with an orderly, symmetrical mask. In Blankenberge, the austere discipline of the elevation belies the multiple hurdles and changing floor heights involved in stitching the new wings into the existing 19th century fabric.
A noble shell
Entering through the original school’s central doorway, visitors can either take the main lift, or are channelled left, up a wide flight of stairs, into the airy double-height reception. Floored with terrazzo tiles — “like the beach has come indoors” — and lined with creamy grey panelling, the ground floor has a warm, but robust feeling, added to by chunky solid oak furniture, bespoke designs by the architect. A line of balustraded openings provides views through to a mezzanine level of computer terminals above, while a newspaper reading room extends to the other side of the lift core.
A staircase at either end of the building brings you to two reading floors above, where terrazzo gives way to oak parquet flooring, set out in a fine-grained weave, with rooms carefully defined by carpet-like borders in the floor pattern. It is here that the rooms of the original school come into their own, providing a delightfully paced enfilade of varying scales, from oblongs to square-plan, to narrow corridor-like nooks. It is also here that the addition of the rear facade makes sense. In plan, this 1.5m margin provides circulation space between the old building and its new wings — mediating between the changing levels with a gently ramping corridor — and provides a fire strategy that allows the doorways between the spaces to the north to remain open.
Source: Kristien Daem
The rooms are lined with a continuous low timber plinth, providing window-seat perches, on which plum-coloured metal bookshelves rest against the walls, slightly offset from the plinth line to express their contingent character — reading as a movable, adaptable layer.
“We liked the idea of the building as a ‘noble shell’, furnished with a library,” says Bates. Lacking the budget to line the walls with timber shelving, the practice instead turned the proprietary nature of the system into an appropriate language, making wise use of the limited €5.6 million budget — much of which went on structural restoration, given the building had been left without a roof for many years, leading to heavily saturated walls.
At the uppermost floor, this interior sequence culminates in a fantastically evocative space, the non-fiction library housed in the steep hipped structure of the roof. Vast timber beams fly to and fro forming great A-frame trusses, with original rooflights poking through in unexpected places. It has already become a favourite with crowds of revising students.
Another unexpected touch recurs throughout the building in the form of little hand-painted passages of text appearing here and there, in window reveals and dado lines. It is the obligatory percentage for art in Belgian public projects, but not the usual bolt-on afterthought — instead conceived as an integrated sign-age project by graphic designer Sara de Bondt, who has also created a panel of embossed text where the new facade meets old.
Surprisingly, the less successful spaces are to be found in the two new wings - housing a children’s library to the north and office and meeting space to the south — which lack the character of the old school rooms. With lower ceiling heights, they feel comparatively mean, while grey lino floors and dingy green and beige curtains cast a soupy pallor across the children’s library. There is also a distinct lack of anything child-oriented, save some colourful bookshelves, although more playful furnishing will no doubt come with time.
But perhaps the most serious flaw to the entire scheme — which cannot be blamed on the architects — is that the library has scarcely enough staff to operate this new building, which is more than three times larger than its former premises, an office and storage building for the railway company that the library had occupied since 1982.
The new 3,570sq m building is now closed in the morning, meaning the area for newspapers is barely used, while the dedicated entrance to the children’s library from the street is sealed off, necessitating a circuitous route through the labyrinthine floors of the main building to reach it. As the librarian bemoans, she was promised two new full-time staff at the time the project began, resources that have since failed to materialise.
The good news is that flocks of librarians from across Belgium are now making the pilgrimage to Blankenberge to see for themselves what a model new facility looks like. As the future of 600 libraries across the UK hangs in the balance, perhaps our coalition government might pay a visit, to see how apparently redundant buildings can be imaginatively rethought with care and attention to detail — on the slimmest of budgets — into truly cherished public amenities.
Architect Sergison Bates Architects
Client Stadt Blankenberge, Belgium
Main contractor Monument Vandekerckhove
Project support architects Bureau Bouwtechniek
Structural engineer Technum-Tractebel Engineering
Service engineer Studiebureau Boydens
Graphic design Sara De Bondt Studio