It is not often that a public building in the small Nordic country Denmark receives praise from a former US president. But that is exactly what happened when former US president Barack Obama referred to the public library Dokk1 in Aarhus as inspiration for the “Obama Library” that is due to be built in Chicago.
The international attention comes with good reason since Dokk1 really is a remarkable library. Not only because it embraces the latest digital technology, but also because it connects with its urban surroundings and has succeeded in becoming a meeting place for all kinds of people in Aarhus.
The library opened to the public in 2015 after a 10-year process where many different groups of people were invited to participate in its development. Today, the building on the harbour-front buzzes with life around the clock and has become a natural meeting place in central Aarhus. The library is also well known to Danes living in other areas of the country because the daily weather forecast is broadcast nationally from an open TV studio in the building.
The vision for Dokk1 came to life over a long period of time and in collaboration with the library staff, the citizens of Aarhus and local politicians; today, the library has become a favourite spot for many Aarhusians. When you ask Marie Østergaard, manager of Aarhus public libraries, why Dokk1 is so successful, her answer is that the generosity with unprogrammed space is the key. “From the very beginning, we knew that we needed lots of space that was extremely flexible because this openness would allow us to invite people to shape the spaces according to their needs – not ours,” she explains. “People can come to Dokk1 and shape the space in tune with their wishes and with who they are. Whether you come here as a student who wishes to study in an area with lots of daylight shining in from the harbour or you are a homeless person who wants to read the daily newspaper, there is room for you here,” Østergaard explains.
“The intention was to reinvent the concept of a public library in a contemporary context,” Marie Østergaard explains. “A library is a democratic infrastructure. It is not a place for books, it is a place for people. And a library is one of the few public spaces that is not commercial. We know that we can create coherence in society when we create spaces where people meet regardless of their personal background and we also know that people are drawn to each other when they engage in issues they share. A library can offer a safe space for human encounters. That was our ambition for Dokk1. Libraries and librarians have a high credibility in Danish society. People do not expect us to try and convince them of something and therefore library spaces are safe and democratic,” Marie Østergaard says.
The Danish architect company Schmidt Hammer Lassen won the architectural competition. Architect Elif Tinaztepe remembers the process. “We wanted to create a building that is directionless in the sense that it invites people to enter from every angle, but also a building that from every angle becomes a part of the surrounding cityscape. Dokk1 is situated in an area with lots of different movements; traffic, a railway, bicycles, pedestrians and a busy port area. We gave the building four different staircases that reach out and invite people indoors, but also stairs that become the touch point between the building and the city.”
The building has a high degree of transparency which is also the fundamental idea for the building design, Elif Tinaztepe explains. “Due to its transparency, the building connects to urban life and it also becomes evident what goes on inside. When you are inside the building the huge window areas let you orient yourself towards the city and the harbour which is another way of making a link between Dokk1 and Aarhus”.
In Dokk1, VOLA products are integral to the experience. “The choice of VOLA products for Dokk1 was the natural choice for us. We wanted large sinks in the bathrooms and we wanted a huge amount of flexibility, elegance and timelessness. VOLA products simply go well with the design of the building and choosing a design that many Danes feel familiar with was also a part of our reflection. We wanted to emphasise the feeling of something well-known and safe,”Elif Tinaztepe says.
It was an aim during the design process to create a building that felt intuitive and needed no or very little signage, the architect explains. And that goal has been fulfilled, also due to the flexible programming of the building. “People using Dokk1 tell us that it is a kind building. That is the best compliment we can ever receive,” Tinaztepe remarks.