The City of Rotterdam and the Rotterdam Public Library have selected a team made up of Powerhouse Company, Atelier Oslo, Lundhagem, Delva Landscape Architecture & Urbanism, Buro Happold, and Isis Bouwadvies. Four other teams competed for the commission.
The library was built in the early 1980s to a design by Van den Broek & Bakema. Construction is expected to begin late 2025 and be completed by the end of 2028, the year marking the building’s 45th anniversary.
“In recent years, the understanding of a library has changed radically,” said Nils Ole Brandtzæg of Atelier Oslo. “This inspired us to transform the existing spaces for collections and storage into an open and welcoming environment for people to meet and work. The new Rotterdam library will become a living room for the entire city, offering a new kind of public space.”
The interior of the library has been redesigned by opening it up on all sides, adding a transparent extension with an atrium at the back and transforming closed storage areas into a variety of welcoming spaces. Visitors can now find their own nooks and niches in the library, exploring the city’s new ‘living room’, said the designers.
The team said that the design is a striking example of reuse, and its growing importance in urban architecture. “In the interests of sustainability and preserving the memory of the city, the last-century library is successfully reinvented for a new era. For the team, this was a golden opportunity to optimise the original, spectacularly eccentric, design, which was downgraded by budget restrictions. The renewal reinstates the original ideas behind the library and creates an intimate ‘living room for the city’, while enhancing an iconic piece of public architecture for a city synonymous with experimental buildings and bringing it in line with contemporary standards of sustainability and circularity.”
Rotterdam Central Library is one of the city’s best-known landmarks, with its clusters of big yellow tubes that evoke the Centre Pompidou. The library fills a square city block and a diagonal cut introduces an orientation on the market square and brings light into the atrium. Over this void a glass ‘waterfall’ reveals a tower of crisscrossing escalators that run the full height of the building. The library opened in 1983 to a mixed reception. “It remains a controversial yet important piece of architecture, marking Rotterdam’s transition from industrial port to knowledge center and from post-war monumentalism to human-scale urban planning,” said the team behind the new project. “To paraphrase a former Rotterdam local government official: love it or hate it, the library is undeniably an icon.”
“The quality of the building – especially its façade and materialisation – couldn’t be optimised back in the 80s,” said Nanne de Ru of Powerhouse Company. “Our design focuses on returning it to its former glory, or rather to the glory it should have had.”
The former budget particularly impacted the façade, with its white bands and strip windows. Transparency was sacrificed for cost-effective but heavy window frames. The redesign transforms the glass layer into a seamless expanse, and this new translucency unbroken views outside. The lower crisscrossing escalators, visible through the glass ‘waterfall’, were somehow wrongly positioned during building, compromising the rhythm of the design, so the new design corrects their alignment. Connectivity is enhanced by adding wooden amphitheatre stairs between the floors.
The yellow tubes that were originally meant for air conditioning remain in use, now taking in untreated air and expelling used air. Extended to the ground, it makes them part of the streetscape, and even more central to the building’s identity. Extra floor space, as well as extra light and transparency, are added by a new glazed timber construction at the back of the library – this is blue, like the former storage area it replaces, ensuring that the library keeps its colour signature of white, yellow, and blue.
“Removing technical areas from the top floor makes it accessible for visitors,” said Svein Lund of Lundhagem. “It can then become an urban oasis and offers totally new qualities to the library with panoramic views over the city – a real gift to the city of Rotterdam.”
The secluded main entrance of the original design was always perceived as isolated, so new, more central entrances were added on every side.
. The various interventions to transform and expand the building have resulted in a sequence of spaces capable of housing a flexible programme that features everything from a cooking workshop to a kids’ climbing wall – as well as plenty of places for studying, learning, reading or browsing. The upward progression of the spaces culminates on the seventh floor, which houses a green and silent reading room on one side, and on the other, a terrace with views of the city.
“The cultural and historical characteristics, values, and distinguishing features [of the library] have been effectively studied, interpreted and, where necessary, modernised,” said the client.