A Friendly Parasite

architects OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen
project Library for the Department of Architecture and Urbanism, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
written by Divna Antičević

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The smell of old and new books, the rustle of pages, whispers over broad desks, small table lamps with directed lights, and the drooping shoulders of students. The traditional image of a library is still present, only now with additional sounds, such as a computer keyboard, clicking a mouse or a careless computer owner’s booting into Windows as he has forgotten to turn off the sound. In spite of galloping technological advances, e-pubs, pdfs, mobies, and the almighty Google, there are things that can still be found exclusively in archives and libraries.


Whether it is about preserving clay tiles or e-readers, the architectural ideal of a library is instilled in our consciousness: basilica-like lights that softly illuminate the walls covered by shelves full of books. This ideal, which is almost inherent in all cultures, has been repeated throughout history. It was incorporated into the first monastic libraries, and observed in the images of Boullée’s unrealized project for the Royal Library or Aalto’s Viipuri Library in Vyborg. It houses books, some of which are so old that they can be used solely in a specially prepared environment. Creating a positive work environment is a task that has not changed for hundreds of years. Nevertheless, this does not mean that it cannot be approached in a contemporary and humorous manner – and this is exactly what the architects Geers and Van Severen did in their library project for the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture in Ghent.


The structure made of prefabricated steel was installed along the walls of an existing lecture room, carefully programming spatial relationships with its design. The turquoise membrane does not represent a surface which separates the already existing from the new, but a volume that contains several zones with all the necessary contents: bookshelves, archive, staff posts, communications. Such a three-fold membrane with three levels indicates a hierarchy of usage by clearly dividing the contents that are freely accessible from those that are supervised. Sliding vertical panels enable the protection of shelf contents when necessary: during lectures, workshops or on special occasions, while at the same time they remain visually present by means of perforated sheet metal panels. Thin elements of studs, smooth metal surfaces, and simple steel staircases accentuate the unity of the designed system and their balanced colour processing.


Its position beneath the existing balcony and the gradation of the section according to the predefined proportions of the space form an impression of this machine coming across a room to its own scale and deciding to stay there, and of its coalescence in time with its surroundings, like the machines that moved into large workshops during the time of the Industrial Revolution. This impression is particularly emphasised by the central working space, which uses zenithal light as well as basilica-like illumination, which is functional and discreet, and acts as if it calmly appropriated, at one moment, the interior that is well defined with the membrane.


Geers and Van Severen won the project for the library at a competition. The existing accomodation no longer satisfied the needs of the faculty, therefore, the management, instead of digitalizing and storing the material, decided to find space for offering the material publicly. Contemporary technologies were not neglected either. On the contrary! A blog was created, merely for the library, with the details about the competition, the construction process, and the relocation. The architects successfully handled this duality: often a banal clash between the new world and the old world, by means of the very materialization of this space, and created a special system in which both live well.