Unveiled: Kortrijk BibLLLiotheek

A rendering of REX’s schematic designs for a new library, education, and music center in Kortrijk, Belgium.
Courtesy REX

Name a famous library built in the last decade. Chances are only one comes to mind, and it can be found in downtown Seattle. The Central Library designed by OMA’s Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus was pathbreaking in so many ways—its unusual shape, its continuous library stacks, the marriage of digital and print—that it continues to be discussed and debated. In fact, Prince-Ramus said during an interview last week that he was surprised to see much of his own language in the competition brief for the BibLLLiotheek in Kortrijk, Belgium, a commission his New York–based firm, REX, was recently awarded.

“Probably the nicest thing ever is to see things you’ve said and done come back to you,” Prince-Ramus said. “A lot of the ideas were very familiar.”

To call the BibLLLiotheek “Seattle 2.0” would be a bit simplistic, though Prince-Ramus concedes there are some clear similarities, such as the corkscrew stacks allowing for continuous shelving of the library’s holdings, a central information point, or Hub, (think super-charged reference desk), and equal billing for all programs, which have expanded to include not just the library but a “Life-Long Learning Center” and the city’s popular music center.

The new library uses the distinctive corkscrew shape for its layout, helping flow and connectivity between floors, especially within the library stacks, not unlike Seattle’s successful Central Library.

After all, Prince-Ramus believes these are the essential components of the modern library, not just the Seattle Central Library. “Until someone can give me a very strong argument why it shouldn’t be done this way—and I invited them to—this is how it should be done,” the architect said. And yet he was quick to point out how the two institutions differed. Kortrijk is half the size (224,000 square feet versus 412,000) but also half the budget ($35 million, or $157 per square foot, versus $112 million, or $272 per square foot).

Also, the inclusion of the learning center, which provides educational opportunities from kids to seniors, and the music center greatly expand the programmatic challenges of the Seattle model, which at its core is about giving all users and spaces primacy to “the detriment of none,” as Prince-Ramus put it. But this ultimately creates a more fluid space, as classrooms double as practice spaces, and research bleeds directly into practice and performance. “You have a space where you can find sheet music and then, steps away, another where you can practice it or teach it, and not far beyond that a place to showcase it,” Prince-Ramus said.

The Hub, another signature from Seattle, concentrates as much information for the building’s program and resources at a single, accessible, identifiable point.

REX hit upon this approach by subverting the original design guidelines, which called simply for the creation of a library and learning center adjacent to the music center. Realizing the decrepitude of the popular music hall, the firm proposed building the new building atop part of the existing music center, and thus combining all three as closely as possible. Furthmore, this leaves the adjacent plot open, with its sale helping to pay for the new building.

Prince-Ramus acknowledges that the design is only schematic—which is perhaps where the similarities to Seattle are strongest. The architect said the librarians there were as instrumental as OMA in the final building. “Just as before, this is all about the client,” Prince-Ramus said. “I feel strongly about these ideas, but if the client doesn’t agree, we’re not going to force them down their throat. I’m certain they’ll evolve into something we can’t even imagine.”

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