At Oslo’s Deichman Library, the Journey Through Is Half the Fun

Delayed by more than a year and a half due to foundation challenges and COVID-19, Oslo’s new waterfront library has opened its doors.
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Oslo’s new Deichman Library building opened earlier this month. Courtesy Einar Aslaksen

At first glance, Oslo’s new main library looks like an unprepossessing glass-clad office building in the strikingly modern Bjørvika waterfront district. Its variously white and translucent grid-like facade shimmers in the sun and shines in a pool out front. On closer inspection, however, the structure’s complexity begins to reveal itself—a diagonal volume with a cantilever on its western elevation that fans out like the pages of an open book, offering playful portent of what one finds within. “At the longest point the cantilever measures [60 feet],” says Einar Hagem, cofounder of architecture practice Lundhagem, which worked with fellow Oslo-based firm Atelier Oslo on the project. “We had to do some convincing to get the politicians on board, as cantilevers always mean money.” He smiles.

Deichman Library’s idiosyncratic shape—with a larger top story and a ground level where a café and restaurant spill out on to the plaza—was intended to create as much floorspace as possible. The site is constrained by roads on three sides and limited at its front by the need to keep a clear sightline towards the city’s opera building (and its renowned sloping roof).

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Courtesy Einar Aslaksen

However restrained the exterior might be, inside is a whole other story. Full of drama and delight, the interior offers up ample bouts of complexity: glimpses of balconies, escalators, honeycomb concrete ceilings, glazing, and atria that draw the eye upwards and invite visitors to explore every corner. Across six levels (including a basement), they will find 450,000 books and dozens of reading and study areas. They’ll also discover trimmings that reflect the evolving role of libraries as hubs for other media, like recording studios, gaming rooms, and a movie theater.

The architects achieved this level internal richness with a simple but decisive move: the creation of three light shafts that cut through the building diagonally from each of its three entrances. These light shafts converge in the middle, and then fan out again to create three large skylights in the roof that send daylight pouring into the space. “When you are on the top floor walking around one of the voids, you have contact with the street and can see the people walking by. And when you are on the ground floor you can look up through the void and see the entire building,” explains Nils Ole Brandtzæg, cofounder and partner at Atelier Oslo.

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Courtesy Einar Aslaksen

What makes this spatial configuration all the more interesting is how it reveals itself slowly, giving the visitor a constantly changing experience as they journey into the building. “Each floor has a totally different spatial quality with new sightlines and new connections,” agrees Hagem. “The [ground], [second], and [fourth] floors are also taller and have mezzanine levels, while the [first] and [third] floors are lower, creating a rhythmic sense of compression and then release.” When you enter the building, explains Brandtzæg, it isn’t obvious how it works—but “as you go up you start to understand more.” He adds that the design team sought to achieve “a dialogue between the extroverted library at ground level and the more introverted—and quieter—library spaces” higher up. The program reflects this acoustic identity and evolving experiential journey.

The top floor fittingly serves up a climax: Here, guests can exit the reading rooms of the library volume and venture out onto the cantilever—an experience Brandtzæg likens to “walking onto a cliff and looking out.” As the visitor imbibes the expansive views of the opera house below, they feel suspended somewhere between the library, the city, and the sky. It’s surprising and thrilling, and not the sort of thing you expect to experience in a library. But it’s just might get your creative juices flowing before heading back to your desk.

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Categories: Cultural Architecture