Gunnar Birkerts’ National Library of Riga

national library of riga

When I told my son we were going away for his birthday his face lit up, probably imagining a sunny beach somewhere with Premier League football beaming 24/7 from large flat screen TVs. Not quite. Our destination was Riga to see the incredible National Library of Latvia, soon to be home to 8 million printed titles. ‘But Dad you won’t be able to read any,’ he reasoned. ‘Not true, boy. They have publications in over 50 languages.’

The library began life in 1919, a year after the Baltic country became the independent Republic of Latvia. The first supervisor of the Library was Jānis Misiņš, who was also the founder of the Latvian scientific bibliography (1862–1945). On May 15, 2008 the state agency Three New Brothers and The Union of National Construction Companies agreed on the construction of the new National Library of Latvia at an estimated cost of 114.6 million LVL which officially opens in 2014. ‘So we can’t actually go in,’ quips the boy. ‘No. But we can visit and imagine what magic exists inside. Bit like when we went to see the new Wembley being built.’ ‘I remember’ he says. ‘They wouldn’t let us inside and you swore at the security guard.’

I persevere, as parents are want to do. ‘Riga officially becomes the European Capital of Culture on January 17 to 19, 2014.’ ‘Does that mean we have to come back?’ ‘Well if we do we can watch a human chain transferring books from hand to hand, from the old National Library of Latvia Building to the new “Gaismas Pils” (Palace of Light) National Library Building on January 18. There will also be an exhibition inside the library called the Second Coming of Gutenberg: The Book. 1514-2014. ‘Why 1514?’ Now I have his interest. ‘That was when the first book was printed in Arabic script as well as the first Jewish printing-house established. The first Latvian book was published a few years later.’ He grunts and plugs in the earphones to his phone. Fair enough.

palace of lightThe first discussions about the need for a new National Library started in 1928, which just goes to show patience is a virtue. And boy was it worth the wait. Although it does look a little like the top deck of a cruise liner it’s yet another example of how magnificent architecture can create a thirst for knowledge and transform libraries into desirable spaces. The man to thank is Latvia’s most famous architect, Gunnar Birkerts.

Birkerts has an impressive 18 library projects on his CV. Each is ergonomic in operation with novel uses of light. Light is of particular significance to this design as it is linked to the independence of the nation and the mythical “castle of light” which is a part of Latvian folklore. There are also plans to link together Latvia’s 2,000 public libraries and create a unified information system known as the Network of Light. This will enable anyone, anywhere to access information across databases and resources and have books delivered to their local library. But let’s not get over excited with the symbolism. Natural light brings life to a building and also makes economic sense.

Sceptics may argue that saving on a few light bulbs does not justify such a mammoth outlay but it’s a start at sustainability, as is the use of the library for conference halls and dining facilities. It also means that a less popular part of the city gets some much needed regeneration as well as visits from tourists such as myself and the boy. If you make it over in January swing by Tejas Un Sarunas, probably the funkiest teashop on the planet and a five minute walk from the library. If you’re after a bit of Latvian literature then find the sculptures of Zanis Griva and Egons Livs back in the Old City and then get their books out.

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One thought on “Gunnar Birkerts’ National Library of Riga

  1. Pingback: Literary holidays: Butterflies and The Killing Jar | Dawn of the Unread

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