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The Library of Catalonia

Critics FAD Award 1995
Public Opinion FAD Award 1995

This was the first large project we had that lasted a long time, from 1990 until 1997, and we carried on with the interiors and final details until 2003. The Gardunya phase is still pending.

The initial commission was for a depository of ten underground floors, overlooking an open space in carrer Egipcíaques that would cost a significant amount to build. When we began to study the project, we saw that if we could demolish the building containing the old depository, which was next to what would be the open space, we would obtain a site of considerable dimensions, which would enable us to build a depository of the same capacity with only five underground floors. This would be much easier to build. As the depository we were proposing to demolish also contained work areas, the scope of the study continued to grow, and finally the project consisted in the overall reorganisation of the entire Library of Catalonia complex.

Structured this way, the project was of interest not just to the management of the Library, it began to attract the interest of the director of large works of the Department of Culture, and thus we began along the route of the Director General for Heritage, the Secretary General of the Department of Culture, the Councillor for Culture, ending up in the Palau de la Generalitat (the seat of government of Catalonia). I went along to the Palau feeling extremely nervous, with the model under my arm like a big cake. I was received by the President and when I came out of his office I had the feeling that the project had been assigned to us.

The Library of Catalonia is in the Raval neighbourhood of Barcelona, it has occupied the main part of the Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu (Former Hospital of the Holy Cross) for seventy years, and forms part of one of the most important sites of gothic architecture in the whole country. The historic building, formed in a U shape, is centred around a large inner courtyard. The three wings of the complex contain low arched naves on the ground floor, and timber crib structures over diaphragmatic arches on the upper floor.

The project proposal was the physical reorganisation of the Library. First to demolish the later buildings of the carrer Egipcíaques and the Plaça Gardunya, which were covering the principal structure of the Antic Hospital, and then it was proposed to build an underground depository and working areas.

The proposal was also to create a green space on the edge of the Raval neighbourhood, this open area would separate the main structure of the 15th century Hospital from the 17th century convalescent home.

The removal of the buildings overlooking the Plaça Gardunya, and the construction of new working and storage areas would provide the library with the space it needed to work at optimal levels, and the city would recover one of its most important examples of Gothic architecture. Over the years, historical and archaeological studies have been commissioned on the bodies adjoining the gothic structure, in order to make this thoroughfare viable.

This will be the starting point for a definitive remodelling of the Plaça Gardunya, and when these buildings are demolished, they will give way to a new civic axis in the interior of the Raval neighbourhood, parallel to the Ramblas, giving continuity to the existing system of thoroughfares.

The Library is a very complex structure. The location of such a structure in an area of such historic importance demands a certain level of sacrifice in order to work well. The great advantage it offers is to be able to use the large gothic naves as reading rooms – that is a privilege that no other library can boast of, and the end result is a truly magical space.

From the outset of the project we wanted to potentiate a complete view of the naves formed by sequenced diaphragmatic arches. Whilst we were projecting the reading rooms I visited the great mosques of Istanbul where I observed how thousands of bare bulbs hung down inside the large spaces and how the lights formed a sort of cushion of light which gave an atmosphere of intimacy within what was in fact the enormous space of the mosque, something to encourage meditation and prayer. I decided to adapt these criteria for the library.

The work we have done in the reading rooms employed completely ‘reversible’ architecture. The main elements we introduced were mezzanines that took care of all of the interior fittings needed in the reading rooms, such as an automatic book transportation system, emergency lighting and climate control systems, etc. We also designed the desks, the desk lighting, shelving, public information and repro areas. The lighting systems, both for working and to illuminate the building, were incorporated into the furnishings and the interior in such a way as to provide a general atmosphere that would be propitious to reading and research.