August 3, 2009

The Warsaw University Library

by Lucas Gray

Warsaw is more emblematic of a post-war reconstruction metropolis than a city boasting a plethora of sustainable design, yet hidden in the urban fabric are a few inspiring examples of environmentally responsible architecture. The Warsaw University Library in particular, demonstrates a bold commitment to sustainable design rarely seen even in the most progressive cities. The building showcases a remarkable blend of technology, aesthetics and function with wonderful integration of plantlife as an integral part of the architecture. Within the structure vines have been integrated into a four story atrium while the building's rooftop has been converted into a maze of garden paths and playfully flying catwalks. From within and without the building is overflowing with life, making nature a vital element of the building's expression and thus clearly demonstrating the architect's aspirations of making a building that is fully integrated into its surroundings.

Designed by Marek BudzyƄski & Zbigniew Badowski with the landscape by Irena Bajerska, The Warsaw University Library is located east of the city center, falling between the main university campus and the banks of the meandering Vistula River. Awarded the project through a design competition, the architects presented a concept of a multi-use building being a "City in the Woods." The building is split into two parts, an office and commercial block along the street separated from the main library functions by a four story internal street. These forms are then placed within an elaborately designed garden that flows up the sides on onto the accessible roof. The covered atrium acts as the main circulation space that links to two main entrances while providing an animated social environment fed by book shops, cafes, student art and casual gathering spaces. The concrete walls of the atrium incorporate green copper trellices, oxidized copper being a primary material throughout the design, that support a burst of life as leafy vines creep up and overwhelm the space. Biomimicry is used throughout the building as a defining characteristic, influencing the form of the structural system as well as decorative motives in the detailing. As you explore the building you get flashbacks of Art Nouveau in its heyday combined with the clean forms of concrete and glass reminiscent of Vancouver Library Square by Moshe Safdie.

One of the defining characteristics of the design's interior is the visualization of the mechanical systems and exposure of the structure. Ventilation is tastefully exposed as is the beauty of the structural concrete walls, slabs and columns. The exposed concrete also act as thermal mass for the building, regulating temperature fluctuation. Furnishings were chosen to blend with the color theme set up by the concrete, muted grays, leaving color to be introduced into the space by the books, the building's users, and the green of the oxidized copper and plants. The main library space is accessed by a grand staircase that leads up from the main atrium. This stairs guide users between four large non structural columns, each crowned with a green copper statue of eminent Polish philosophers, and depsits the visitor into a second, three story, atrium. This atrium is dominated by ranks of twin concrete columns topped by metal tree-like structures supporting an immense glass roof and thus flooding the space with abundant natural light. The open planning of this level allows easy movement and clear organization as it functions as a the main library information space - housing the reference and circulation desks, a catalogue hall as well as some open stacks and student text books. The three floors above hold the the main stacks, reading rooms, offices, and other library functions. Small private reading desks are located along the edge of each floor, overlooking the library atrium.

The architects didn't fail to make a bold statement with the facades of the building, to accompany the intricate design of the interior. The main facade consists of a long and gentle concave curve dominated by green copper and tinted glass. A huge inscription "Biblioteka Uniwersytecka" dominated the top of this curve while 8 large copper panels visualize excerpts from Polish Renaissance writer Jan Kochanowski, Plato, an old-Russian chronicle, Arabic and Indian classics, and from the Bible. To complete the gesture there is a score by composer Karol Szymanowski and sample mathematical formulas engraved on these tablets. This main street facade is complimented by flanking facades where plants and gardens have grown to dominate the architectural expression. Copper trellises once again bring vines climbing up the walls, connecting ground to roof garden. A series of hills, ramps and stairs lead the visitor up the side and onto the roof of the building were they are introduced to one of the most maginificent spaces in Warsaw, a 10,000 square meter garden overflowing with colors, textures and smells of flowers and plants, while offering stunning views of the city's skyline and the gently flowing river. There are also a series of catwalks that rise and flow over the glass atrium roofs giving visitors glimpses of the interior. Finally, An intricate system of cascading pools bring the water collected on the roof through a series of ponds and streams, naturally purifying the water and then releasing it into the surroundings. This also provides habitats and feeding grounds for a variety of birds and other animals.

What is most convincing about this building is how the aesthetics of every design decision relates to the overall goal of making a sustainable building. It doesn't rely on a complex system of hidden technology but rather uses plants, rainwater catchment, exposed mechanical systems and thermal mass to be the main language of the architecture. This building forces its users to engage in a dialogue about the relationship between the built and natural environment. It clearly states its ambitions and lets the architecture speak about the environment from the use of plants as a wall cover, to the tree motive of the structural system. Every aspect of the building down to the smallest detail speaks to the function of the building both as a library and as a space designed in harmony with the surrounding landscape.


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