With the ubiquity of the Internet and the ease of buying or downloading books online, library memberships are becoming a thing of the past. Who can blame the public, really, when the traditional library calls to mind dusty books and claustrophobic aisles flooded in fluorescent light?

However, it’s precisely society’s Web dependence and the way this distracts us from interpersonal relationships that has pressed home the need for libraries as a communal space. The raison d’etre remains to provide free access to information, whether via computers or through physical books. But today, libraries have to provide modern and relevant platforms for young people to pursue their interests too – even if this isn’t reading. As civic spaces, they draw people together, encouraging inclusivity and togetherness, values that deserve much promulgation in the 21st century.

Using design, the following four libraries have been transformed from mere book depositories into sexy new spaces. They have revitalised neighbourhoods, increased visitor numbers and burnished the reputation of their home cities. Some people aren’t thrilled – they’re the ones who like reading in quiet libraries – but, then again, they’re in the minority these days.


WHAT: Helsinki Central Library Oodi, Finland
Oodi, which means “ode” in Finnish, touts itself as “a living room for residents, located right at the heart of Helsinki”. Designed by ALA Architects, the space offers users the options of visiting the cinema, recording music, using a 3-D printer, playing digital games or hosting a party. Those mystified by the library label need only go to the top floor, and they’ll step literally into Book Heaven. Book lovers can lose themselves in 100,000 titles in an open-plan space under a white undulating roof, the skylights mimicking sunlight breaking through clouds. The Instagram-worthy three-storey building, which opened in December 2018, resembles a towering ship, No wonder it sailed past 15 other libraries to win the 2019 Public Library of the Year award.


WHAT: Hunters Point Library, Long Island City, New York
This six-storey library by Steven Holl Architects, though compact, is a design standout – with a waterfront position along the East River in Queens, and a sparkle visible even from across the waters, thanks to its aluminium-painted facade. In contrast to all that silver, the interiors are warmly clad in bamboo, and feature designer furniture pieces by Eames and Jean Prouve. It opened in September 2019 and houses over 50,000 books, but visitors may be drawn to the expansive views of Manhattan through the unusual window cutouts instead. However, at the time of print, it is the subject of a lawsuit for not being fully accessible to disabled persons, due in part to its staircase-centric design. Guess some fixes are in order, before the design can be considered a home run.


WHAT: Louisville Free Public Library South Central Regional Branch, Kentucky
Of the four, this library hews closest to the traditional, with its focus on books and learning, paired with a deep respect for nature. Completed in 2017, the trapezoidal building by JRA Architects is situated among trees that were once part of a vast forest. Care was taken to preserve them, but those that had to be felled were repurposed into lumber design features. Massive floor-to-ceiling windows allow views of the greenery and daylight to spill in, with reflective finishes reducing electricity consumption. Inside, the building – made of metal, glass and stainless steel – has a futuristic feel, with angled walls, metal strips and overhangs. Despite its one-level structure, this building offers an abundance of space with its high ceilings and open layout, such that one doesn’t feel hemmed in. It’s no wonder over 2,800 new library cards were reportedly issued within six months of its opening.


WHAT: Calgary Central Library, Alberta, Canada
The Calgary Central Library designed by Snohetta and Dialog opened in November 2018 and is a hive of activity, partly because it is built over a light rail track that separates the downtown area from the less affluent East Village. Footfall is not light too, as the entry plaza acts as a bridge between the neighbourhoods, featuring a wooden archway inspired by Chinook cloud formations (a phenomenon rarely seen elsewhere, where stationary stratus clouds band together). All of this generates noise, which makes the existence of the library a marvel. Structural isolation and acoustic filler material help cut noise and vibration, and it was designed to get quieter as one ascends the four floors. Inside, you’ll find 450,000 books. But, of course, a performance hall, and a podcast and Youtube production studio are also par for the course for such an atypical library. Easy to see why both The New York Times and Time included it on their list of places to visit in 2019.


Written by Alison Goh for The Peak.