Monday, 23 December 2013

Christmas in Berlin...

A festive Brandenburger Tor 

They don't do things by halves in Berlin and during the festive season they pull out all the stops, with massive Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas markets) and elaborate displays all over the city. The German capital is also a showcase for architecture of global significance all year round, with typically East and West German design in abundance (the difference still being very evident in places) along with the postmodernist creations which predominated as the city started to reinvent itself when the Cold War subsided at the end of the last century. Heck.. some of Berlin's most iconic structures have even been intricately and deliciously rendered in chocolate!:

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church, epitomising old and modern
 architecture in Berlin ( confectionery form, obviously!)

I wrote about the libraries of Berlin with some affection in my MSc dissertation on library design but always felt something of a fraud having not visited the city myself. I decided it was time to put this right and set out on the trail to find some of Berlin's most architecturally notable bibliotheks.

Philologische Bibliothek, Freien Universität Berlin 

The 'Berlin Brain'
I took a wander through possibly the spookiest university campus I've ever encountered, located in deepest, darkest Dahlem in south west Berlin to find The Philological Library. Similar to Norman Foster’s early 1990’s designs at Cambridge University’s Law Library and Cranfield University Library, his 'Berlin Brain' is an ambitious, flagship building. It cost €18 million to build and is designed to resemble a human brain. As Diecks K. and Werner, M [2004] explain, this concept even extends to individual services located within the building. They note the circulation desk, for example, to be “roughly where the optic nerve would be” and go on to describe how the building is covered by a “cerebral membrane” of protective fiberglass paneling. The full article, which explains how each of the different parts of the building relate to functions of the brain, can be found here.

It was great to finally visit this famous library and although it has its faults (it is not easily accessible, for instance) it still, to me, absolutely embodies what a seat of learning should look and feel like. It also includes exhibitions and displays relating to language and literature and an inspiring range of spaces for individual or group study. 

One of the breakout/small group study areas located
at the base (cerebellum?!) of the Philological Library
Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm-Zentrum - Humboldt-Universität 

Named after the Brothers Grimm, the Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Centre is another awe-inspiring building. Having eventually gotten my head around the intricacies of the key-card operated security locker system and successfully deposited my rucksack (..most research libraries in the city have a similar system, I soon discovered) I ventured into the main reading room. It was 
an experience akin to being a toddler physically delving inside a gigantic bookcase! With tall wooden panels towering around you wherever you go, you feel awed into reverent silence by the sheer elegance of its architecture and it is striking just how soundless the building is.
The tiered main reading room
at Humboldt University 
The library has a massive 9 floors and around 2 million open access volumes. An innovative touch is the inclusion of two 'Automat' machines (cutely also named Jacob and Wilhelm!) introduced earlier this year in order to help circulate this huge collection. These allow users to deposit any items which they wish to keep on hold (described as 'Parking' by the on-screen instructions) and also to pick up reserved items. I was impressed with this, having not seen the like in any libraries I've visited previously. Speaking to library staff about the system, however left me with a less positive impression. They mentioned there have been a fair amount of teething problems with this system, whilst stocking-up and performing basic maintenance on the machines has also proven troublesome. Overall, I've chalked this one off in the "further research required" column.. 
One of the two 'Automat' machines at
Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm-Zentrum
Universitätsbibliothek Cottbus Brandenburgische Technische Universität (BTU)

Umm. So I didn't really really get to look around the library at BTU Cottbus. The train to Cottbus (about 80 miles outside the Capital) was delayed and frankly hellish; packed with drunken football fans being utter prïckß all over the place. As more piled in, the train got further and further delayed along the way until I found myself facing the mile-and-a-half trek to the library from the station with only minutes left until the building closed. So, after wrestling my way through said football fans, I started running and made it just as staff were leaving the building.. Then I remonstrated with the security officer for a while to let me have a quick look around in my best Deutsche sprechende.. "Nur fünf minuten!" etc.. but nothing doing. 

As another onlooking member of (non-library) BTU staff put it, "why do you want to have a look? It's only a library!".  "Only a library?...ONLY A LIBRARY?!" I exclaimed. Then laughed maniacally before launching into a 30 minute diatribe about how the academic library constitutes the beating heart of any University campus... Well O.K.  I didn't really do that.  In actual fact I sloped off with my tail between my legs, muttering something bitter-sounding -  "Danke schen (..für nicht)" - I think it might've been. Or something equally un-vitriolic. Grr. Happily there are others out there who are willing to fight the good fight to promote the importance of libraries globally, for instance libraryphile John Campbell, who included Cottbus in his 'The Library: A World History' book, published earlier this year. 

Cottbus Universität Bibliothek - The one that got away!

This is apparently what it looks like on the inside!
Photo: Will Pryce (in Campbell, 2013)

Cottbus offers a virtual tour (albeit in German..) for those who are interested. They also have a great 'Wegweiser' (signpost) feature on their catalogue which allows you to see the physical location of items which you search for on a map of the library.

Aside from these academic libraries, Berlin's history makes for some fascinating and poignant library stories; the 'Empty Library' (which serves as a monument to lament for Nazi book burning ceremonies) for example, libraries which have been destroyed and rebuilt (including the University libraries) or in the case of the country's national library, a library which has been divided into two. The more modern State Library building is situated near the famous Potsdamer Platz and resembles the brutalist architecture of major research libraries like the British Library or the old Birmingham Central Library in the UK. The more decorative Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin sits just to the east of the former boundary wall and is more classical in its architectural style (neo baroque style, to be precise). The two libraries together boast one of the largest collections in the world, with over 23 million items.

The vast atrium of the Staatsbibliothek's site in
Potsdamer Straße - one of two main locations
Within the next decade, the are plans for a new landmark library in Berlin. The idea is for the main central public libraries in Berlin, Zentral- und Landesbibliothek (not to be confused with the two state research libraries mentioned above) to be merged at a new site site on the grounds of a disused, historical airfield at Templehof in the south-east of the city. Designs for the new library have been submitted, with two concepts having being selected at this stage - the first is described as a "concrete spaceship" and the other, a "glass crystal". There's more information about each of these competition entries here in this Guardian article, with the decision set to be made in early 2014 for construction to start in 2016.

The disused Templehof airfield is to become the
site of a new, consolidated Berlin central library
So, I enjoyed my trail through libraries past, present and future in Christmassy Berlin. I very much hope to go back and explore Cottbus Library properly someday. In the meantime, Merry Christmas to everyone and all the best for a great 2014!

Frohe Weihnachten!!


Campbell J. [2013] The Library: A World History. Thames and Hudson Ltd. Chicago.

Lamont, T. [2013] 'The Library: A World History by James WP Campbell and Will Pryce – review'. The Observer 1 December 2013. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 22.12.13]

CampusTVCottbus [2012] BTU-Bibo-Guide[Online] Available at: [Accessed 22.12.13]

Jackett, S. [2012] 'Berlin As A Post Modern Utopia' [Online] Available at:  [Accessed 22.12.13]

Oltermann, P. [2013] 'Historic Tempelhof airport set to be site of grand Berlin library'. The Guardian 19 December 2013. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 22.12.13]

Ullman, M. [2008] Empty Library, Berlin. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 22.12.13]

Werner, W. & Diecks, M. [2004] '"The Brain" - The Philological Library, Free University of Berlin.' LIBER Quarterly, 14(2). [Online] Available at [Accessed 22.12.2013]

Zentral- und Landesbibliothek [2013] Zentral- und Landesbibliothek. [Online] Available at [Accessed 22.12.2013]