Architect Grzegorz Mika sings the praises of Marek Budzyński and Zbigniew Badowski’s Warsaw University Library, a postmodern paean to free and open access that was supposed to herald a new, post 1989, Polish architectural identity…
The act of “BUWing” is well known term among Warsaw’s young adult population, and it is not just a random invention. Rather, this neologism, the root of which is the abbreviation for the Warsaw University Library (Biblioteka Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego), aptly captures a phenomenon that encompasses a mode of spending time, studying and leisure – a myriad of activities all housed under one roof.
The BUW library was designed by Marek Budzyński and Zbigniew Badowski, who won a competition for it in 1993, and is a an example of a unique collaboration between the city and the architects, the fruit of which is this city-like building. After the fall of Communism in 1989, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland’s first Prime Minister, decided to redesign the former headquarters of KC PZPR (the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers' Party) as the new University Library. The building, however, could not hold the weight of the volumes, and instead was given to the Warsaw Stock Exchange instead. The profit from renting the space went to a specially established New Library Construction Fund.
In the twentieth century, up until the late 1980s, libraries and other functional buildings in Poland tended to be designed according to the principles of modernist functionalism. However, after the break of 1989, a new architectural identity was needed for the newly established state. In this context, the design of the new Warsaw University Library was a particular challenge, with the radical ideals of “The Open Library” guiding the design. Until the 1990s, the library’s collection, approximately four million volumes, was stored in a traditional neo-classicist 19th century building at the centre of the University of Warsaw’s campus. But the new organising principle of The Open Library was a departure from the old approaches to librarianship. The Open Library meant the creation of freely accessible space where the library’s collections would be available for consultation to all. It also meant integrating the collections with study rooms (containing approximately 1,300 designated reading and research spots) and catalogue space so that library users could have unlimited access to all the resources.
The designers were convinced that the organisation of space contributes to the quality of research work and that easy access to collections fosters motivation and creativity with logically organised catalogues to allow exploration of the library’s vast collections. As a result, the BUW’s reading rooms, catalogues, silent study and project rooms, as well multimedia resources are all open access.
In addition to the principles of open access, the architects provided a number of other guidelines on the exterior and interior design of the library. The completion and success of this building – at once a library, garden, archive and office space as well as a centre for leisure and culture – depended on a strict adherence to their plans. Their New Library was intended to be economically self-sufficient, hence the introduction of a commercial block within it. This is a separate entity hidden behind a grand colonnade, yet the use of the same flooring design creates an impression of spatial and stylistic unity.
The public space of the building is organised along two transit axes. The first, parallel to Dobra Street, separates the commercial block from the research library and extra collection storage space. The commercial block, which resembles a city street, houses shops, coffee shops, changing rooms, bookshop, and exhibition space. An underground level contains more shops as well as a big leisure centre, which closed just recently.
The second, perpendicular, spatial axis designates the academic and research areas of the building. As you climb the steps that lead to the entrance of the library space, you metaphorical transition from one world to another – a passage marked by the Latin inscription hinc omnia above the entrance. The grand staircase that marks the entrance to the World of Knowledge culminates with four statues of famous Polish philosophers and thinkers of the Modern period: Kazimierz Twardowski, Jan Łukasiewicz, Alfred Tarski, and Stanisław Leśniewski. These statues are also a modern interpretation of the ancient propylaea and refer back to the porticos of Ancient Greek and Roman temples of science.
The central catalogue space, surrounded by the so-called colonnade of philosophers, is the point of convergence between the two axes and a quasi-sacred meeting point between man, knowledge, science, and culture.The main open plan space of the library houses some of the Library’s five million volumes. Like all the interior and exterior details of the building, from chimneys to handrails, the main collection space was also designed by the architects. The mix of mobile and stationary glass and steel book shelves contrasts starkly with the heavy wooden shelves so common to more traditional libraries.
The main reading space is housed under a glass roof whose supporting structure, as well as the colour scheme, directly evokes the surrounding fauna and flora. Yet, it is the unique composition of the library’s own botanical garden that integrates the building even better within its green surrounding and the nearby Vistula River that runs through the city. The garden starts at the ground level and climbs up, through metal frames and artificial slopes and partly over the roof of the building, 15 metres above ground level. The architectural elements of the garden design are made of patinated copper whose green tones correspond with the natural diversity of the university garden. The garden covers part of the roof of the library and surrounds the whole building thanks to special nets and pergolas within the garden space that have allowed the plants for the past fifteen years to steadily grow up the structure of the building. This design, is the architects’ gloss, it is meant to symbolise the unity of two apparent opposites – nature and culture.
In the wider context, this “fifth façade” creates a unique union between the building and the surrounding landscapes: the green banks of Vistula River and the Vistula Escarpment that towers over the whole neighbourhood of Powisle. These magnificent views as well as the sights of the university campus, the Kazimierz Palace and the Old Prague neighbourhood on the other side of the river can be admired from the botanical garden.
Yet it is not just the rooftop garden, the interior design or the characteristic copper green that make BUW so distinct. Each side of the building is full of innovative artistic features such as tree-like glass ceilings and the grand verdigris copper panels of the façade from Dobra Street. This famous façade is another example of a contemporary translation of classic architecture. It consists of eight seven-by-four metre column-like copper panels that resemble open books full of words, equations, and inscriptions. These different languages of knowledge symbolise the richness of the library collections. A beautifully sculpted inscription – the University Library (Biblioteka Uniwersytecka) – stretches above the panels across the length of the façade.
The library was the first component of the university’s new campus in Powisle. Subsequent buildings, however, did not follow the same principles of public open access and innovative functionality. BUW is a unique record of the search for a new kind of architectural identity following the demise of the Communist regime. According to its creators, the building was to be a model for sustainable development and a possible, distinctly Polish, third way between modernism and postmodernism. Unfortunately, this quest for a new identity translated into relative few other projects of similar kind. BUW remains a unique and revolutionary undertaking.
– Grzegorz Mika is an architect, architecture critic and historian, currently working on his PhD at the Warsaw University of Technology. He is also founder of popular Facebook-site Warszawski Modernizm 1905- 1939.