Buildings I learned about as a student — through photographs and drawings — have a persistence in the mind that real buildings often don’t. Gunnar Asplund’s Bibliotek in Stockholm is one of those buildings. I learned about it more than twenty years ago in an art history lecture and its parti — a cylinder set within a cube — stayed with me. While embedded in the modern canon, it’s a building celebrated for its eccentricity. It stands for a very early modernism, a non-International Style modernism, and a Scandinavian brand of modernism. It’s the building’s plan I remember best, with its awesome platonic geometries.
Visiting the library itself was something altogether different. The building is in good condition and remains a working branch of the Stockholm public library. It’s close to the city center, near Stockholm University, tucked away behind a large stagnant pool (also designed by Asplund), next door to a McDonalds. The evening I visited the place was busy with children, college students, and adults stopping by on their way home from work. The drum-like central hall, lined with stacks of low, curving, bookshelves and lit from windows high above, was cluttered with a temporary stage, display tables, folding chairs, and carts of books waiting to be reshelved. It’s finishes were just as dreary as those one would find in any public library: linoleum floor tile, varnished woodwork, and painted brick. Through it all the pristine geometry of the central hall asserted itself, reaffirming Architecture within the assault of everyday life. I doubt that most Stockholmers see that their library is an icon of modern architecture. But the building adds some splendor to their lives, which is much more than most.