At its best and boldest, the architecture of a library can harmonise with the study and imagination that takes place within. Here are 10 of the finest libraries and reading rooms to be found across Europe, from Baroque spaces to cutting-edge extensions from contemporary architects, these are ideal for contemplative study in some of the continent’s cultural hotspots.
Admont Abbey Library
One of the largest monastic libraries in the world, the library at Admont Abbey is a masterpiece of the Baroque. Its cavernous ceiling is decorated with frescoes showing the progression of human knowledge up to divine revelation, embodying the ideals of the Enlightenment and how they were structurally expressed. The decoration is a combination of pure white with gold arrangements, to stress the purity and ornateness of knowledge. This is matched by the contents of the library, set in Austria’s oldest monastery and containing a superb repository of antique books and manuscripts. Expansive windows allow the sun to flood the room and make the visitor feel blessed with the light of wisdom.
Admont Abbey, Kirchplatz 1, Admont, Austria + 43 3613 2312604
Biblioteca Joanina, Coimbra University Library
Named for Joao V, Portugal’s ‘Sun King’, the Old Library at Coimbra University exhibits the hallmarks of architecture made for an absolutist ruler. Joao dedicated much of his time to patronising the arts, and the library was built with the wealth that accompanied Portugal’s imperial endeavours. The exquisitely precise carving, lacquering and design were all deliberately commissioned in order to make the best use of Portugal’s craftsmen, and much of the wood used was exotic to them, as it was exported from Brazil. Its ambition matches the library at Admont, but the large portrait of Joao is situated provocatively, to remind visitors whose ambition was responsible for its construction. The library only houses books printed in the 19th century and earlier, making it a truly historical collection.
Old Library, Trinity College Dublin
The highlight of this library is the 65-metre long ‘Long Room’, resembling the nave of a large church. The Long Room is punctuated by busts of great philosophers and figures associated with the university, including Aristotle and Edmund Burke. The library’s primary treasure may be the Book of Kells, an extravagantly illustrated gospel book, which is held on permanent public display. The library also holds temporary exhibitions to show off some other specimens from the collection, which includes a copy of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, and the oldest harp in Ireland. In October 2014, the library bought a significant collection of Samuel Beckett’s letters.
Old Library, Nassau Street, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland + 353 1 8962320
Francois-Mitterand Library, French National Library, Paris
The French National Library is constituted of a handful of individual complexes which add up to an embarrassment of riches. A particular highlight is the François-Mitterand library, which was built by Dominique Perrault in 1989 following an international competition. One of its namesake president’s grands projets, the library looms large over the Paris skyline and takes many of its architectural cues from other types of building. The building has proven controversial with some Parisians, but the imitation of industrial architecture and skyscrapers encourages thinking of bibliography as a sleek, industrialised process in its own right. Attempting to embody the very force of modernisation, the Francois-Mitterand library asserts the dynamism of learning.
Austrian National Library, Hofburg Palace, Vienna
The Austrian National Library is housed in the Hofburg Palace, which was the historic seat of power for the Habsburg family. Decorated in an explosion of Baroque colour, the library is abundant in its decoration, with metres-tall bookshelves and luxurious ornaments. The walls are curvaceous, and the imposing statue of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI looms large underneath the large ceiling fresco. A building inseparable from the history of the family that commissioned it, the library is now an unusual combination of public access and architecture demonstrative of private wealth.
Biblioteca Marciana, Venice
No less an architectural authority than Andrea Palladio decreed that Jacopo Sansovino’s Biblioteca Marciana was the ‘richest and most ornate’ building assembled since antiquity. Sansovino wanted to assert Venice’s world-leading qualities of scholastic research and classicism; this architectural statement still resonates today as its bay windows project themselves onto the Piazzetta San Marco. The obligatory ceiling frescoes and niche paintings are present, some of them painted by classical Venetian artists Titian and Tinteretto. Entering the library requires walking up a dramatic marble staircase illuminated by golden decorations above, an appropriate entrance to one of Venice’s finest buildings.
Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Piazzetta San Marco 7, Venice, Italy + 39 041 240 7211
Radcliffe Camera, University of Oxford
The Radcliffe Camera is set in Radcliffe Square, just off Oxford’s High Street, and is surrounded by cobblestones, providing a bone-jarring welcome for students arriving on their bicycles. The first circular library in England, the influence of Christopher Wren’s then-recent St. Paul’s Cathedral can be detected upon James Gibbs’ work. In 1814 it was the unusual setting for a banquet to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat and exile to Elba, with the monarchs of the Sixth Coalition in attendance. Most of the internal decoration is build with locally sourced stone, which provides the library with a deep echo and sense of space. The library is not permanently open to the public, but special tours run every Sunday and also include some of the other highlights of the Bodleian library complex.
Radcliffe Camera, Radcliffe Square, Oxford + 44 1865 277 162
Philological Library, Free University, Berlin
This library proudly advertises its purpose, and was designed by the Foster and Partners firm to resemble a gigantic brain made of aluminium and fibreglass. The interior of the Philological Library is even more impressive, as the design uses curves and clean white lines to give the entire building a kinetic feel, with the bookshelves and reader stations acting like interconnected neurons and axons. The brain metaphor is continued as the room is split into two hemispheres gradually narrowing in size until they reach the closing of the cupola. The building truly feels alive, as it possesses a double ‘skin’ shell on its walls that can close and open in response to Berlin’s varying climate.
Baroque Library Hall, Clementinum, Prague
In the Clementinium complex of Prague is situated the Baroque Library Hall, one of the greatest examples of the titular architectural movement. Baroque takes its name from the Spanish word ‘barroco’, which means a rough or misshapen pearl. Accordingly, this library presents familiar architectural features but in a different form; columns twist their way upwards, and even the railings and furniture are exuberantly designed to the smallest detail. A contrast to some of the more reverential buildings on this list, the Klementinium library is truly vivacious and celebrates the vitality of theological learning in the best Counter-Reformation spirit. A must-see for any visitors to the city of a hundred spires.
Black Diamond, Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen
Opened in 1999, the Black Diamond is a classy yet understated addition to an older building. Jutting onto the waterfront like a ported ship, its huge slanted glass wall provides an immaculate view of the marina to the readers inside. Monolithic in size and shape, it is one of the most well-known buildings from the internationally prestigious Schmidt Hammer Lassen firm. The building is constituted by two halves, united by bridges across a central atrium which double as a symbol of the building’s effective unity between Denmark’s past and present. One of the first installations in the renovations of Copenhagen’s waterfront, the library is a modern complex, containing exhibition spaces, eateries, and a roof terrace to supplement its traditional purpose.
By Chris Beer