Is it a church? Is it a community hall? Is it a coworking centre, or a kids’ club? The answer is yes to all those, and more.
For one of Australia’s newest chunks of commercial real estate is actually a glamorous library built on an old heritage site in Sydney’s inner west, readapting and adding to parts of the former buildings to worship at the altar of books and communications of all kinds.
And whereas once libraries used to be dark, dusty places where people gathered in silence to pore over musty tomes, now they’re soaring light and bright spaces, championing hugely innovative design and often becoming the new focal points of communities.
“We’re extremely proud of this,” said the developer of the new Marrickville Library and event space, Toby Long, Mirvac’s general manager for residential development in NSW.
Long was speaking at a preview of the premises on the site of the former Marrickville Hospital, before its official opening on August 31.
“It was really important to provide something for the community that was well designed and of great quality as space where they can come and meet or work or read or just enjoy. These are the kinds of spaces that can help make a community strong.”
The $40 million, 3600-square-metre building is the latest in a series of spectacular new libraries around Australia that are turning them from old-fashioned mere book-borrowing locations to some of the sexiest venues in town.
Among the most awarded, and attractive, are Sydney’s Green Square Library, Surry Hills Library and Bankstown Library and Knowledge Centre, City Library in Shellharbour, NSW, Melbourne library Bunjil Place, the Caulfield Library at Monash University, Cobram Library in Victoria and Geelong Library.
“I think there has really been a revival of libraries both in capital cities and regional areas,” said Sue McKerracher, chief executive of the Australian Library and Information Association.
“Now you can go around Australia and find libraries that are really quirky and wonderful and inspiring.
“We are seeing a lot of investment in library buildings from local councils and state governments – and a little from federal – but I think their popularity is a result of how we live now. People in cities particularly live in quite crowded apartments, so they need space for quiet and study, and places for the community and to get together.”
Today, there are 1408 public library buildings in Australia and, while borrowing books is slightly down from 173.7 million a year in 2012-13 to 161.4 million in 2016-17, visits are up over the same period from 112.6 million to 114.2 million.
With a 26 per cent increase in the number of public internet devices in libraries over the past five years, many of the new visitors – who are often older – come to use computers, access the internet and learn computer skills. At the other end of the spectrum, more events for children have also drawn in many younger visitors, with 3.2 million visiting libraries for storytime last year.
The new emphasis on designing welcoming, collaborative spaces has also had an impact.
“Design used to be all about bookcases packed with books and functional seating,” said Ms McKerracher. “But now it’s much more open and fluid, with flexible seating, communal areas, quirky designs that attract people, half-height bookcases with books spine or cover out and room to pull them out and browse, and bright colours.”
Marrickville Library, next door to Mirvac’s new Marrick + Co 225-apartment-and-terraces development with the former 1909 nurses’ quarters restored and adapted into two homes adjacent to a public space called The Common, takes that even further.
With a sunken courtyard outside to block out noise from busy Marrickville Road, and under a massive pitched feature canopy roof cantilevered off one of the old brick buildings on the site, the entrance foyer leads on to a large auditorium stair where people can sit and read or socialise.
There’s also a pavilion for public hire, a cafe, meeting rooms and public artworks while the children’s library area has low bookcases, plenty of little nooks for kids to sit and read as well as communal spaces with beanbags, and opens up to a playground outside. Upstairs, original french doors open out to restored verandas for outside space, and new library floors connect to the old hospital building with a suspended glazed walkway.
Architect Brian Clohessy, whose company BVN also designed the award-winning Woollahra Library in Double Bay and the new library at Darling Square, which will be opening soon within the timber-clad Kengo Kuma building, said the Marrickville Library was created for the whole community.
“It’s going back to the idea that anyone in the community can come here either to look through or use as somewhere pleasant to spend time,” he said. “The challenge is always to create uplifting space where people want to be.
“While the ground level will be full of energy of people coming in, parents and children, there’s then the opportunity to explore and move up through the spaces to find quieter zones and follow the sunlight around. It’s all about allowing people to live and be human.”
Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne said the library would be a magnet for locals and those outside the area. “This is a library, exhibition space, public square and community hub all rolled into one,” he said. “I think this could well become the new centre for the whole of the Marrickville community.”
Elsewhere, libraries have had a big impact on their locations. Architects Studio Hollenstein designed Sydney’s 3000-square-metre Green Square Library as an underground single-level building with 49 circular skylights, which won the Architectural Review Library Award 2018 and four gongs at the recent NSW Australian Institute of Architecture Awards.
“Today libraries are definitely space for innovation and rethinking what a library and community centre can be,” said director Matthias Hollenstein, who’s now working on library projects in Sydney’s Fairfield and Strathfield.
“Libraries are like culture clubs. They need to be anything you want them to be, with cafes, a place to relax or for a meeting. They are spaces with no hierarchy, where everyone is an equal.
“In Fairfield Library we are working on a cafe that is more like a workshop, where you could hold cooking classes for instance. The library has become the key public destination for these activities.”
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