Utrecht University Library
university building
Utrecht [satellite]
The Netherlands
Wiel Arets 🔗, Maastricht
precast concrete, glass
BFT 06/2005
6 - 8
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Utrecht University Library

Prefabricated parts giving a papyrus effect

The black-green cube housing the new library is a calming and most agreeable pole in the middle of the diverse and in some instances very vivid architecture on the university campus in Utrecht. The closed surfaces of façades are made from anthracite-colored precast parts, the surfaces of which have been given a relief of reeds. This pattern of reeds has also been applied as screen-printing to the green-shimmering glazing. The building of an otherwise more reserved shape has been given unimagined radiating power and dignity in this way.
It is easy to compare the new home for the books in Utrecht with the black Kaaba in Mecca. The major architectural difference from the major Islamic pilgrimage site is however that this building is not in the middle of an open space and at a respectful distance from all other constructions. In actual fact the library designed by Wiel Arets fills the last available plot at the central plaza of the new university campus. Connected with the main building and the thereby adjoining lecture-theatre center by a catwalk, the “Black Box” as it looks like from afar on photographs, fits in the overall constellation of urban constructions more like the last piece in a jig-saw puzzle.
On approaching the library measuring some 110 m x 36 m, the first to be noticed besides the black color is the apparently arbitrary way the glazed and closed areas of the building are arranged. The nine-storey building is in fact organized around four central supply cores and exhibits 20 regular axial sections in the longitudinal direction. The individual floors are suspended in a raised manner between these axes. All have different ground areas and sections and an impressive three-dimensional landscape is given in this way that is always good for surprises from the angles and views given.
There is always alternation in the façades from transparent glass units to black-dyed precast concrete parts of unit size 1.0 m x 2.50 m whenever these floors meet the outside front. Structural female molds from the company of Firma NOE Schaltechnik from Süssen were used in manufacturing the glass-reed ornamentation. Some 480 m² in total of these rubber-type mats were needed for the extensive shuttering work that included in-situ concrete in some cases as well. The motif used equally well for screen-printing on the outside glazing, was developed by the Dutchman Kim Zwarts and is based on a photograph taken for the architect by the artist in Sweden for the job.
The heart of the building is the main foyer. Like a canyon it pushes its way between all levels and spreads these over two unequally large areas. The various parts of the floors are however linked together by numerous catwalks and staircases. This reception hall - perhaps 25 meters high - is on the second floor and can only be reached from the outside by way on an inconspicuous revolving door.
With a single-storey add-on construction, a parking building with 530 parking spaces supplements the library capacity. Erected entirely as a prefabricated construction, the façade of this is completely in line with the general appearance of its main neighbors.
And when the texture of the façade only shows reeds in general, the reference to the related papyrus is obvious. In this way Wiel Arets not only refers to the well-known rolls of script of antique times; he is also drawing attention to the first location where such papyrus rolls were first kept together: in the library of Alexandria.
That the surface of a façade can also give an indication by its contents as to the function of a building, is, in actual fact, a quite remarkable and new kind of effect.
Robert Mehl