Geelong Library And Heritage Centre
By Elliott Webb
Occupying the footprint of the former two-storey library, the new Geelong Library and Heritage Centre designed by ARM Architects conjures up a sundry of stories, abstracts and ideals. Behind the existing Heritage Centre, the new library sits; an eroded sphere opening up sympathetically towards Johnstone Park, the 1926 Geelong Peace Memorial and the Geelong Art Gallery. Sited and responsive to all these historic influences it now forms an early Australian picturesque of the beautiful ruin. The dominant form of the dome is homage to ideals of self-improvement, knowledge and curiosity, and expressed in the domes of the great reading rooms such as the State Library of Victoria and the Library of Congress. It recalls the great civic gestures of the 19th century, a sign when the dome was symbolic of democracy, enlightenment and civil society. However, the geometry of the dome is eroded, and Director Howard Raggatt of ARM remarks it is “Like a grotto or the entry to Fingal’s Cave, it breaks into a crystalline alcove, allowing the landscape into its zone”. What is now left behind is the suggestion of a dome conceived by a series of arches, resonant of both the great libraries and symbols of knowledge, and a future-oriented library with an organic structure that lets the natural world penetrate the interior.
The exterior of the dome is clad in 332 panels of glass reinforced concrete. The cladding tile array is dressed in muted browns and reinforces the appearance of the geodesic dome whilst harmonizing the appearance with its proximal masonry buildings. The library, conceived as a third space, exists in isolation, is sacred and removes the necessary chaotic interactions found in the home, workplace and pilgrimage between. Upon entry it is upturned, where the first few floors of the building have rejected these traditional notions and the stern attitude of the no eating and no talking policy. Instead, it is formalized as a living room or lobby, engaging the public and inviting them into a large 80-seat café and community gathering space with popular books and magazines. These first few noisy levels are a familiar invitation within the built environment and pursues the consideration that the library can be something less defined as other.
A digital age has meant that computers are replacing books, however, celebrating the tactile and stretching a full six meters at ground level is the Great Wall of Stories, where readers can browse books from an elevated catwalk, reminiscent of Sydney’s old Mitchell Library. As you progress through the building the crystalline shards of the west and south facing walls become reminiscent of stalactites and recall the renaissance tradition of the grotto as a primal space of retreat and reflection. The third floor/core of the library is quiet and climate controlled, housing the regional collection of public and private records; the entire floor is compliant with the state archives place of deposit storage specifications. The building, arranged vertically over eight levels and connected via a large stair, has provided spaces that are variant; from contemporary library spaces, areas focusing on children, archives, to research and ultimately function rooms at the top. On each level, its crystalline exterior allows a view to the historic grounds, not through a flat pane of glass but via vantages; outcrops, crags and lookouts. Landscape architectsTaylor Cullity Lethlean has provided more outlooks and external vistas with a continuation of the facades architectural language through landscaped terraced spaces.
Whilst the exterior gives illusion to the great reading rooms and their grand interior volumes, its interior spaces have shown an internal modesty and warmth that are akin to a regional library and are neatly organised within its shell; the dome now exists as a symbol or even a folly. In comparison, the facade of ARM’s earlier work on the extension of the St Kilda Library and Town Hall which gave noise to the phrase ”the book is dead’; encapsulating a zeitgeist in the 90’s that technology had overtaken the tangible. The new Geelong Library has instead given itself responsively as an icon to a growing regional town to position itself around a ‘think global, act local’ ethos in which the community library now acts in regards to the use of information. The building’s delivery to the community has been a true success, which is shown through its phenomenal visitor numbers. Patti Manolis, CEO of the Geelong Regional Library Services has quoted, “the project is meeting all of its objectives – it is creating a vibrant hub in the centre of Geelong, further enlivening the cultural precinct; acting as a significant tourist destination; and providing world-class library and heritage services to all visitors.”