Thursday, August 24, 2017

Gaismas Pils - the National Library of Latvia

In memory of Latvian-American architect Gunārs Birkerts (January 17, 1925 - August 15, 2017), please join me for a virtual tour of the “Castle of Light”!

Gunārs Birkerts (also known as Gunnar Birkerts) is known for designs such as the Corning Museum of Glass and the Corning Fire Station (Corning, NY), Marquette Plaza (Minneapolis, MN), the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (Kansas City, MO) and the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. Visitors to the Latvian Center Gaŗezers will have visited Brīvdabas baznīca, Kronvalda zāle and Klētnieki (or ZKs), all of which are his work. However, the architect might be best known for his recent design for the National Library of Latvia in Rīga, Gaismas Pils. (A more complete tally of his designs can be found here.)

For insight into the inspiration behind the project and its creation, Birkerts wrote this article, The Idea of the Project. The architectural form references and draws inspiration from Latvian folklore; the legend tells of a Castle of Light that sank into an ancient lake and would only arise from the depths when Latvians were once again masters of their own land.

While those members with library cards can freely access floors 1-8, a tour can be arranged for visitors that wish to get a behind-the-scenes look all the way up to the pinnacle. These one-hour excursions can be arranged by e-mailing; for more information visit the LNB website. Our knowledgeable guide met us on the ground floor to give an overview of the history of the building and the scope of the library’s collection; there are 4.5 million items including 2 million books in 62 languages contained in Gaismas pils.

The first floor features various exhibits that reflect on the history of the library and literature in Latvia, including the temporary exhibit by artist Rita Grendze, Simts raksti tiem, kas meklē gaismu. The site-specific installation reflects the cultural heritage that the artist experienced growing up in the US through 50 two-sided pieces; 100 Latvian books were used, one book from each year of the Latvian state's existence. While this exhibit recently closed, the permanent exhibit “Castle of Light and Glass Mountain – The Story of the National Library of Latvia Project” and up to 5 other exhibits are open to the public on a daily basis.

The first floor also includes the Imanta Ziedoņa zāle, a theater hall with 462 purple chairs made in Rīga chair factory. The light-colored wood (Latvian birch and Canadian maple) that features so prominently in this space as well as throughout the library was carefully selected by Birkerts, and mostly was grown in Latvia for the project.

Note that the design of the ground floor resembles Latvian linen textiles

While there are actually 13 floors to the library, the next floor has been termed a mezzanine to avoid an unlucky number. The M level encompasses the Reference and Information Centre, the Baltic Research Centre for East Asian Studies Library Reading Room and an atrium. Playing on one wall is a video of the 2014 transfer of books from the old National Library to their new home – via a chain of 14,000 volunteers forming a human chain. 

For more on this event please see my post Rīga: European Capital of Culture 2014 

The bookcase that houses the 2,000 volumes that traveled hand-to-hand to the library have been placed in a specially designed bookcase that rises up 5 stories in the center of the library. Every Latvian is invited to donate a book to this bookcase (one that has special meaning to the donor), and it is the architect’s hope that the shelves will one day be filled with tens of thousands of books that are really a tautas grāmatu plaukts – a bookcase of the people. Utilizing mirrors for visual effects, the shelves appear never-ending when viewed from certain angles for yet another layer of multi-faceted symbolism.

We continued to floor “2” and the Humanities & Social Sciences and the Economy and Rights Reading Rooms. This floor is also home to one of 10 1st edition facsimiles of the Album Terra Mariana 1186–1888 which tells us about the spread of Christianity in Latvia and Estonia, the lands once known as Livonia (Terra Mariana or Land of Mary was the official name for Medieval Livonia). The original album was printed in 1888 in Rīga and presented to Pope Leo XIII; this copy is preserved in the Vatican Apostolic Library. The 70 parchment pages contain a wealth of information about Livonian castles, castle ruins, churches, the coats of arms used by ancient families, seals, historical persons, and impressions of ancient silver and gold coins of the time.

From Vecrīga, Gaismas pils appears a glittering patchwork of glass and metal. However, the library was designed not only to create an unforgettable profile to join the city’s skyline, but also with the visitor to the library in mind. The public spaces all face the river Daugava, offering spectacular views of Vecrīga, Daugava and its various bridges from the collections and reading rooms throughout the library; the scenic vistas visible from the third floor Technology & Science and the Periodicals Reading Rooms are no different.

The 4th floor is devoted to the arts, the Art Reading Room, Music Reading Room, Audiovisual Reading Room and Sound Recording Studio all located around the atrium. The 5th floor focuses more on the cultural, with Archives of Latvian Folklore and the Lettonica and Baltic Reading Room complimenting several exhibition halls. The “Cimelia” hall currently contains the “Times Reflected in Ancient Manuscripts Exhibit” that enables visitors to view the most unique examples of the manuscript collection of the National Library of Latvia. The highlight of this floor is the 130 year-old dainu skapis (cabinet of folksongs), where Krišjānis Barons (the "father of the dainas") stored the tautas dziesmas he collected as part of his systematization of the texts of the Latvian folk songs. In 2001 Dainu skapis was recognized as a cultural heritage item with its addition to the UNESCO "Memory of the World" register. 

We continued on, passing the 6th floor which contains the Maps and Small Prints Reading Rooms. Our favorite collection within the library is housed on floor 7 – the Children’s Literature Center. With comfortable seating areas we could have spent hours browsing the extensive selection, and the librarians were invaluable in providing information on the newest Latvian literature for kids of all ages. We found the 24-book bērnu žūrija selection especially interesting; the reading program, which is now entering its 6th year, includes books read and rated by children. In 2016, there were already 20,000 readers from 712 Latvian libraries and schools, as well as 54 weekend schools in 22 countries – including the Krišjāņa Barona Latvian School of Chicago.

The 8th floor is home to the Library and Information Science Reading Room, as well as Competence Development Center classrooms. Technical operations are housed on the 9th and 10th floors, so our next stop was the 11th floor; together with the 12th floor it forms the spire of Gaismas pils, the glass crow’s nest that offers breathtaking views from above. The space serves not only as an observation deck but also an event space (complete with piano) and exhibit; it is here at the very top that various drafts and notes that Gunārs Birkerts made while working on the library project are displayed.

A visit to the National Library should be finalized with a stop at the restaurant “Klīversala.” The cafeteria-style dining room dishes up a wide array of food that is reasonably priced and fills those growling stomachs, while the dining environs mimic the light-colored wood/glass/metal interior from the rest of the library.

The webpage of the National Library of Latvia can be found here, with a 360° digital tour offered here. Follow LNB on facebook, twitter and Instagram!

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