Library recipes

Combine books, libraries, design, art, and architecture and you have a recipe to feed me well.

This week I attended a conference at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne – Libraries as Catalysts for Placemaking.

As a Librarian and Industrial Designer, this experience was a real treat for me. Listening to people talk about, and show pictures of, current library design projects is my idea of a great day. It ignites my desires to design. Sigh!

In a past blog post I recalled how as a five year old entering the domed reading room on the State Library of Victoria inspired my desire to be an architect (and ironically, not a Librarian).

So let me tell you a little about the conference. First to present was Ethan Kent from Project for Public Spaces in New York He spoke very fast and still had to fly through half of his slides because of time constraints. He could have filled the whole day’s agenda with his relevant and interesting content. He said that libraries are important “community anchors”. He spoke of the Power of Ten, meaning ten things to do in a place. He pointed us to his website for more information on these ideas and concepts that he didn’t have time to explain more fully.

Next to present was Dan Hill, Senior Consultant from Arup. He spoke about new cultural spaces and how technology can enhance our use of public spaces from a visual and a practical perspective. His ideas included screening text onto the outside of buildings as light displays that represent the immediate and changing measurement of what is happening in a digital sense. For example, light displays as a word cloud of the names of the countries that the URL’s being accessed from the internet devices in the area that are accessing the wifi service in operation. Hmmmm. He also showed us The Cloud, project in London that is not going to be built apparently.

Several public Librarians from Victoria spoke about their experiences in recent library designs. Suzanne Gately spoke about the new Altona North Community Library. Roslyn Cousins talked about the new Colac Community Library and Learning Centre that incorporates the Colac Secondary School. Genimaree Panozzo from Moreland City Library spoke about the recent librarian’s tour of the District of Columbia Library Building Project. Sally Jones of Moonee Valley Library spoke about her trip to the USA looking at how libraries devote spaces to teenagers.

Cecilia Kugler of CK Design International spoke specifically about interior design and fit outs of public libraries and in particular the makeover of Randwick Library in NSW. Peter Moeck of the Brown Falconer Group presented his report about the new Mount Gambier Library in South Australia.

One factor that is continually repeated is the importance of using community art projects in libraries as means to effective “placemaking”. Our library service has a fantastic community art exhibition program that continues due to the continual hard work of people behind the scenes. It is already in place, valued, and effective.

After these presentations I sorted through my thoughts and impressions and began to think about the library designs that I have seen and experienced. What is it about the Mount Gambier Library that I like so much? What works and why? Because in my view it stands apart from the other library redesigns I saw presented and that I have experienced firsthand. And what makes the Mornington Library design so poor?

I recall the poor design of the brand new Mornington Library where I worked as a Librarian for many years. It was state-of-the-art, looked great, applauded, etc, etc. The colour scheme, inspired by local seaside colours of lime green, warm tones of grey/brown, looks great, the shelving and fixtures are nice and well positioned. It is an attractive and comfortable place to visit as a customer. But it was not a practical space to work in at all.

I heard the architect describe how she arrived at the inspiration for placing the first line for the plan of the building and it was by transcribing the line of the perceived route of the ship of Matthew Flinders as he explored the waters off Mornington all those years ago. This gave her a starting point that was not a straight line and forms the profile of the front elevation for the building. To my practical mind this sounded irrelevant and whimsical and even negligent. I much prefer the process being used now that begins with the people and how they want to use the place/space. This was totally ignored I think in this instance and the impractical result reflects this.

The interior of the space has placed the robust and busy children’s area next to the busy information service desk and telephones and the internet access computers. The cute colourful round padded cushions on the curved seating/shelving are perfect stepping stones for toddlers who precariously negotiate with toddler hops at chair height from the floor. The space is poorly thought out. In the afternoons the sun streams in through the immovable louvered windows straight into the eyes of the library staff who squint to see their computer screens and the faces of the customers before them. The spacious open entry forms a wind tunnel that allows cold air in winter and warm air in summer to stream through onto staff at the main service desk. The groovy cafe tendered to a local restaurant is only open for short hours that suit them and not the library customers. The staff work areas are small and don’t allow for storage, expansion or sensible work flows.

I was fortunate to visit the Mount Gambier Library last year before it opened in December and I was immediately impressed. I had seen the old Mount Gambier Library in the small dungeon of the Council offices and this new building was a huge improvement in every way. It is a lovely space to enter and be in. The central area is rectangular with high ceilings that give the feeling of being in a cathedral and light fills the space from above.

It is an intelligent design that treats its customers as intelligent. There is no “dumbing-down” in terms of signage or attitude. The minimal use of primary colours serves a practical purpose in terms of signage for easy identification of collections and zones. Overall the colours used are rich with extensive use of natural timbers and a warm patterned carpet. All the desks, shelving, display units, are custom designed and built with warm timber. This colour scheme gives the interior a feeling of tradition and permanence that many new libraries seem to be moving away from.

The children’s area is a separate area and uniquely fitted out as an underwater cave. It is surely a real drawcard for children and practical for library staff, children’s programs, and the consideration of other library users. The cafe is generous and well used. The work room also is generous with all of the latest technology implemented to make the library work the best possible, so fully-implemented RFID with a “smart” returns chute, that only opens to allow item returns by customers. Extensive use of local artists added much to the building for signage, identification, and decoration. Peter Moeck is justifiably proud of this project.

With lots to think about, I return to my little country library intent on bringing whatever small changes we can accommodate in order to make some improvements and expand our library services and facilities to be a place that continues to surprise and delight our community.

Off the grid

The first time I heard about “earth ships” was while watching an episode of Grand Designs where a couple built an alternative style house in Brittany France. Whilst passive solar house design, water catchment and recycling, and thermal mass walls were not new ideas to me, this particular construction method using car tyres rammed with earth and aluminium cans and bottles was something I hadn’t seen before.

Not long after that I was searching the web and inadvertently came across the DVD Garbage Warrior. It sounded interesting so I ordered it for the library collection. I was enthralled by this documentary. It is about architect Michael Reynolds and the story of his quest to build fully sustainable dwellings. He has been doing this since the 1970’s. The rammed earth tyre thermal walls, and aluminium can and plastic and glass bottle walls are his ideas.

I can’t believe I’d never heard about Michael Reynolds and his Earth ships. I have been interested in sustainable housing construction and development since the late 1970’s. One of my final year projects for Industrial Design was about “energy’’. I investigated the history and evolution of energy supplies to industry and society. Back then it was forecast that our oil reserves would run out in 2010!!. I soon realised the saving potential of passive solar house construction.

Garbage Warriors traces the story of Michael Reynolds and his work in New Mexico. He experiments with his ideas and invites others to join him there. He soon builds a crew and a community. This community is totally off the grid. The houses are fully sustainable providing the residents with power, heating, water, and food.

One crew member and resident, Phil, says when referring to his young daughter who has grown up in their house there:

“She doesn’t know the difference between this house and a normal house like I grew up in. It’s just part of her, that the house takes care of her and supplies power and heats itself and has plants that provide food and the water comes from the roof. She knows all that and she thinks that’s the way it is and that’s the way everyone needs to think.”

After many years of this development Michael Reynolds was stopped by local authorities and lost his architectural licence. He laments:

 “I had lost the freedom to fail.”

 And this is his point. Phil explains further:

 “You’ve got to be able to make mistakes otherwise you never evolve housing type…Everyone’s so stressed about getting sued that they can’t make a single mistake so there is no evolution in design.” Michael goes on to say, “New Mexico is the state where [we] tested the atomic bomb. They designated several thousand acres of land to be just absolutely destroyed with something they just didn’t even know if it would keep on exploding or not. They took extreme risks in the interests of national security. So what I’m saying is, can’t we make a few hundred acres test sites with no holds barred to test methods of living for the future? It’s a test site. They allow it for bombs. They test automobiles. They test airplanes. They should allow it for housing.”

The buildings in this documentary are interesting and inspiring. The work these people take on is amazing. If you are at all interested in sustainable living, self-sufficiency, saving the world, or even self-preservation, you must watch this documentary. You will come to admire the determination and tenacity of Michael Reynolds – Garbage Warrior.

“Hubba hubba hubba.”

Be sure to watch the Special Features to see their biodiesel production and Denis Weaver’s earthship.

Here are some more links: Earthships 101 Part 1 and Earthships 101 Part 2.

Grand Designs

Grand Designs is my favourite TV show at the moment. It really is a great concept. Made in the United Kingdom and intelligently hosted by Kevin McCloud, it follows domestic building projects from start to finish.

There are a wide variety of circumstances that add to the interest and individuality of each unique project. Some people use professional architects, project managers, builders, etc. Others use one or two, while some go at the project alone – bravely or perhaps foolishly. It is often surprising to see the results from some really determined people.

For Australians it offers some architectural work not commonly seen here in Australia. For starters we lack old stone castles, and you won’t find too many buildings over 200 years old ripe for renovation. Then there are the obvious climatic differences. This brings a whole range of differing factors that shape the design and construction of the buildings. Their ground is a lot different to ours. They experience a lot more mud than we’ll ever see. The heat and light in Australia are harsher and this means we design to accommodate those conditions. You don’t see too many verandas in UK building design. But those UK cousins of ours soldier on, building their castles in the snow and mud and cold. You really have to admire their tenacity. How many aussie tradies do you know that knock off and go surfing if the conditions are right? And good luck to them.

Kevin McCloud brings intelligent commentary to the process. He plays the devils advocate baiting the starry-eyed visionaries with possibilities of things that could go wrong. His background in architecture and design ensures his input comes from a solid knowledge base and understanding.

It is a real pity Australian TV production companies don’t take careful note of the popularity of this show amongst Australian viewers. Everyone I talk to watches it and loves it as much as I do. I thought my background in industrial design made me specifically attuned to this show, but it seems to reach beyond that. I suppose we all dream of beautiful homes to own and live in, and we’d all like to shape that nest to fit our own unique sensibilities.

I cringe at the aussie shows like Location Location and Backyard Blitz. When Better Homes and Gardens comes on I can’t change channels quick enough. The loud discordant theme music is enough to make me shudder and this is quickly followed by the shouting bullying monologue of the presenters.

Even the introductory theme music of Grand Designs is beautiful and of real quality. Well done Kevin McCloud and Grand Designs and the ABC for airing it in Australia. On Facebook I’ve joined the groups Kevin McCloud Makes Architecture Sexy and The Kevin McCloud Appreciation Society. Cool!!


Fuel your mind

Library in Nice France

Library in Nice France

Driving through Nice in France I was surprised to see an extremely unusual building and then delighted to learn it is a library. Who else but the French would build such a quirky building? I love it. The busy tour schedule meant that I couldn’t get back to the library to walk around or go inside. Next time I visit Nice I will for sure. 

Meanwhile at our library we are preparing for the annual celebration of Children’s Book Week and the theme this year is Fuel Your Mind. The CBCA website offers promotional materials for sale to libraries, such as posters and bookmarks, however access and availability of these is limited. Often the graphics are directed towards a young audience and not suited to the secondary school students. So we produce our own signs, posters, and bookmarks. This year we have used the Nice library as the key graphic as it represents the theme of Fuel Your Mind perfectly.

I can only admire and applaud the French creativity, ingenuity and courage for producing architecture such as this unusual library.

Our State Library

The scene before me was mesmerizing. I stood at the entrance to a cavernous room: circular in plan, the walls soared upwards on all sides towards a domed ceiling; shelves of books lining the walls. Ladders were propped intermittently against the shelves on various levels. There was a hush over the interior; this was a library – the State Library of Victoria. People sat studying at wooden desks that were arranged in rows like spokes of a cartwheel converging at a central hub. Green reading lamps glowed across the room illuminating the study areas and softly lighting the gloomy interior. This first memory of mine was when I was about five or six years old and already having a love of books and reading, this cathedral of books validated my own obsession. This awesome vision planted the seed of my desire to become an architect. It is ironic that becoming a librarian did not occur to me.


I had cause to visit the State Library of Victoria again this week and it never ceases to inspire me. The thoughtful and spectacular renovations have brought the library into the 21st century. I could not resist a visit to the domed reading room that is no longer gloomy as the skylights have been rebuilt. The Redmond Barry Reading Room is such an inviting place I wished I could stay all day. Their approach to their collections and exhibitions also send out firm messages that this is not an old stuffy and irrelevant institution. With offerings such as Inside a Dog for teenagers, Mirror of the World for book lovers, SLV21 for electronic media, and their new Ergo site for student researchers, they truly do try to engage and inspire us all. I looked in at the Medieval Books exhibition that was so busy it was difficult to squeeze in between other people to see the rare books on display.