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Learning curves.

Spain's Universidad Nacional de Educacio a Distancia is roughly equivalent to Britain's Open University, an institution that offers degree courses to mostly mature students using radio, television and postal courses. But of course, such places need physical headquarters, both for the faculty and for students on short residential courses, and the Universidad's is strung out on the banks of the Manzanares river in Madrid. The latest addition to the complex is the library, on the south edge of the campus site which has been made as a short square brick tower which is striated with thin strips of windows topped with horizontal sunshades. It is a building that is not exactly scowling but it has a reserved and dignified presence, appropriate perhaps for the gate of a university.

The tower is so hermetic because of noise from the neighbouring road and to prevent sunlight spoiling the books. Only at the top and on the east (entrance) side does the building open up, but the large windows of the research rooms over the entrance doors are as severe as the other openings, and the atmosphere is not exactly welcoming. The entrance level is pretty severe too. A low hypostyle hall has a grid of fat columns and is divided by a glass screen, through which are the control desk, catalogues and the reading area for current issues of magazines. Stair and lift lobbies are in the north-west and southeast corners of the plan, not immediately obvious to the uninitiated.

But, having negotiated this slight confusion, users emerging from the lobbies on the first floor are confronted with a lucid and noble space. An inverted cone of luminous space passes through the whole volume and is defined by concentric circular voids in each floor (save on the sixth, where the opening is square). The circles gradually grow in diameter as they rise and their parapets are formed into reading desks at which users work looking out into the central void. Above the whole space are 16 steep coffers terminating in translucent planes within the glazed roof space. The geometry of the coffers prevents direct sunlight penetrating the void, and light is diffused and warmed by the pine panelling in the coffers and round the parapets.

Books are grouped on each floor by subject, but there is a pair of open stairs in addition to the two vertical circulation towers, so that omnivorous readers may move easily within the great space. Dark beech bookstacks are arranged in parallel rows round the circular voids, except on the east side, where solid pine partitions define the research rooms and prevent excessive light from their large windows from spilling into the centre. But people working round the cone of light are not left entirely without knowledge of the elements, for those eye-browed strips of glazing that give the outside its brooding presence turn out to be clerestories that bring light in over the bookstacks; the brows serve to reduce glare and prevent direct sunlight from striking the books. On gloomy days, natural light is supplemented by individual lamps on the circular desks, and by lights up under the glass roof above the coffers.

Round the coffers are offices and meeting rooms served by roof-lit corridors. These have views of the river and university, but the most genial room at this level is the cafeteria which, with floor-to-ceiling glazing, occupies the whole south-east corner of the top floor.

But it is the huge central space lower down that is the building's tour de force, and it inevitably recalls some of the great libraries of the Modern period, notably Kahn's Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire. But in effect, Linazasoro has reversed Kahn's parti. At Exeter, the floors of stacks are like beautifully crafted trays round the central void and readers have delightful little individual carrels by the windows on the perimeter. In the Madrid library, being a reader is much more a communal affair (though you can retire to the study rooms on the east side to achieve more privacy and space). Kahn used to say that `A man with a book goes to the light. A library begins that way'.(*) Linazasoro's cone of light makes a dignified and appropriate heart for the scholarly powerhouse of the university.


(*) Kahn, Louis `The continual renewal of architecture comes from changing concepts of space', Perspecta no4, 1957.

Collaborators Luis Sese, Javier Pudain, Santiago Hernan, Juan Carlos Corona, Antonio Rubio
COPYRIGHT 1995 EMAP Architecture
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:new library for Spain's Universidad Nacional de Educacio a Distancia
Author:Bream, Mary
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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