An open book

An adaptive reuse project in a former Netherlands train depot is being hailed as a sign of things to come for public libraries, with an open design that provides a lot more than just bookshelves. Jack Wooler reports

Located in Tilburg in the south of the Netherlands, an adaptive reuse project is presenting a new chapter in public libraries, offering much more than just the storage of books. The building reuses a former 1930s train servicing depot – referenced in the building’s title, ‘LocHal’ – which is an abbreviation of ‘locomotive hall.’ Project leads CIVIC Architects, in conjunction with a team of design companies and the Tilburg municipality, have paid homage to its historic use by weaving a locomotive theme throughout the building, and utilising rugged industrial materials – some new and some existing – left uncovered and “honest.” With such facilities having to re-evaluate their purpose in the modern age, and prove their value by not being ‘just’ a library, the LocHal hosts multiple programmes, including an 1,000+ seat event space and a range of dedicated ‘learning labs.’ One of the main tenets of the project was that the library should be a place in which knowledge is “not only consumed, but produced,” and as such the library is host to a variety of events and exhibitions, with partners such as the arts organisation Kunstloc, Brabant C and the coworking facilities of Seats2Meet facilitating much of this content.

A local landmark

Not far from the border with Belgium, Tilburg is Holland’s sixth largest city. It is in one of the former Dutch Railways train maintenance yard’s derelict locomotive sheds – located on the main train station site, and where trains would be serviced – that the LocHal library has found its home. Being just 100 feet from the station, passers by on one of the country’s major train routes heading towards Rotterdam, would be – and still are – able to see the monumental building, which is a landmark for local residents, though over the years it became uninhabited and run down. The highest and most massive building in the area, the huge shed can be seen from across the city. Ingrid van der Heijden, partner at CIVIC Architects, says that when the project team first arrived, the entire maintenance yard “was kind of a hidden city, because you were not allowed to go in unless you worked there.” Because of its high visibility, she says, “all the people in the city saw it and knew it,” everyone having “a father, brother or neighbour who worked in the area.” Most of the residents however had never actually been there themselves. The local municipality bought the land in 2005. According to Ingrid, there were many plans to transform the area, including a variety of public, housing and commercial properties with a number of collaborators. However the global financial crisis in 2008 saw “the whole development of the area stopped.” Eventually, the municipality decided to start developing the land by themselves – beginning with a new public library. Following a competition held in 2014, CIVIC architects started the design process in early 2015, the design team also including Braaksma & Roos architectenbureau, and Inside Outside (Petra Blaisse), with Mecanoo responsible for the fit out. Alongside this team, Arup was the technical consultant for all disciplines.

Imposing & inviting

Now, when walking from the station, visitors are presented with the still momentous, but revived building, described by the architects as “both imposing and inviting.” LocHal has a footprint of 90 x 60 metres, and the building is 15 metres high. However its bulk is offset by a ‘porous’ glazed facade, which invites users in and clearly displays its internal functions. Some of the glazing has been retained and restored, with plentiful daylighting provided by the large skylights spread across the former train shed’s roof. The rest of the structure is largely steel, much of which was existing, the additions blending with the local material palette of the industrial area. Ingrid van der Heijden says the restoration was integral to the design process, but it was ‘light touch’ where the original structure was concerned: “One of our goals was to touch the original building as little as possible – for that reason, we made sure that the new parts rarely touch the old.” There has been some refurbishment to the exterior to bring it up to date, and the remaining 50 per cent of roof space around the skylights is covered with solar panels. The electricity produced surpasses the project’s needs, and the extra capacity goes to neighbouring buildings for their own use. At night, the building’s internal LEDs turn the library into what the architect describes as an “inviting beacon in the city centre.”

An indoor public square

Stepping inside, the structure’s grand scale has been fully exploited. Instead of following the path of many large scale projects, splitting the space up into separate modules – usually for heating efficiency — here visitors are presented with expansive views right up to the skylights, diagonally across the building past the many programmes within the library, and back out through the wide-set glazing of the building’s facades. “The first time we entered the building, we fell in love with the spatial effect of the hall, and the way that when moving around it you are really part of the atmosphere – so we tried to keep it this way,” Ingrid says. She adds: “We immediately decided we wanted to have an open design, which was not like the initial plan the municipality presented to us.” The entrance hall functions as a “public square,” intended to emulate outdoor shared spaces inside, and provide a welcome and bustling atmosphere for users – with the library’s quieter functions located further from the entrance. As users pass into this hall, they are surrounded by solid materials reminiscent of the building’s original form, with glass and oak complementing the rigid black steel and concrete. This material palette was chosen by the architects as part of the recurring theme of “honesty,” which determined the building’s architectural language. Past a coffee kiosk is a large exhibition area. Continuing the references to the building’s former use, here are placed three large tables made from a train’s undercarriage, standing on the original tracks. These can either be used as work or resting spaces, or pushed together to create a stage or a catwalk. Several staircases lead up through the open space to the upper two levels. This “landscape of stairs,” as Ingrid puts it, doubles up as seating for the 1,000 plus event space and overlooks the three podia, lit warmly with plentiful LEDs in order to invoke an air of the theatre. The staircases pass by the many areas dedicated to reading, featuring innovative furniture and shelves. One is a dedicated children’s library that draws design inspiration from De Efteling, a fairy-tale theme park near Tilburg; giant storybooks and bookcases in the form of coloured pencils and rulers are placed throughout this area for the young visitors to experience and interact with. The galleries on the first floor allow visitors to browse the huge range of books hosted by the library, or perhaps visit one of the more quiet reading areas. Around these functions, and distributed across the building are what have been termed ‘labs’ – rooms dedicated to a specific area of knowledge. These include a Food Lab, a World Lab, a DigiLab and a Heritage Lab. Alongside the labs, there is a concert hall known as ‘the glass hall,’ part of the coworking domain within the building run by Seats2Meet. This space is in the form of a large glass cube, which was reportedly part of the concert hall in Amsterdam’s Beurs van Berlage building. On the third floor is a balcony, offering panoramic views over the city. While it was not rented out at the time of this interview, Ingrid expects the extra space by the balcony to be inhabited by a restaurant or similar facility.

Open house

Realising the unenclosed nature of the library has been a fundamental part of the practice’s design process, and the theme permeates the entire building. One of the most prominent features of this is the long sight lines available to users from a large portion of the building, ranging diagonally across the interior landscape. This effect was achieved in part by the architects capitalising on the building’s existing strength, with the team able to greatly minimise the amount of new structural elements. As van der Heijden says, “if the steel was strong enough to lift trains, then it’s strong enough to lift part of a building.” Just two rows of columns were needed to supplement the existing riveted ones. Even these elements aid the openness of the space, hiding services for air, heating, water, lights and electricity underneath. In terms of heating a largely ‘open’ building, the practice worked with Arup to develop a system consisting of five “climate zones.” “The whole idea of the zones was to heat the people and not the building,” explains the architect. “For instance, all the new meeting rooms are climate controlled, as you would expect in a new building, but there is also a large part of the volume that is not directly heated.” This means that the temperature inside can range between 15 and 32 degrees, depending on the weather outside. “If you enter a public space and it is cold outside, you’ll have your coat or your scarf with you, and keep it on as long as you move around,” she explains. “But, the moment you find a place to rest of study, there are local measures to heat or cool you depending on the time of year.” Where there are heated areas, the extra warmth produced for these rooms in turn mitigates the hall temperature slightly. “So it’s not that the hall itself has no climate control – it has some, but just not that much,” says Ingrid. “It’s more from the over-capacities and some basic heating around the cafe, for example.” This smart use of selective heating means that the majority of the building can function as one large space, without the heavy costs that heating such a space would entail. Also, adding a green supplement to this heating, an aquifer thermal energy storage (ATES) system pipes warm water from underground.

Textile screening

With such a large programme included in the building, it was essential that the staff at the library be able to section off parts of the space. This is achieved by using another one of the most prominent internal design features of the library – a set of ceiling height, mechanised textile screens. “It started as a strategy to be able to win the competition,” says Ingrid, i.e. one which referenced Tilburg’s well-known former textile industry. The screens were actually created in the city’s textile museum, a short distance away from the library, to a design by Inside Outside. “From the start it was clear that we would do something with textiles,” Ingrid details. “We ended up with six large panels, with a set of three prints so that left and right they are all the same size and configuration.” These striking screens offer up a range of functional possibilities, visually as well as acoustically screening off sections of the library. For example, they can separate the Seats2Meet area from the higher library floors, or run across one of the staircases to create a small, semi-private auditorium. Motorised, they are able to move according to programmed settings, which often intrigues users, as Ingrid confirms: “When I’m in LocHal and the textiles are moving, I always see people taking photos or making little films because it’s really impressive; it adds something soft to all the steel, concrete and glass in the environment.”

The next big thing

Now completed, the building has proved to be widely successful. “It’s almost moving to see how people use the building,” Ingrid comments. “As a designer, you can think of ways that ‘maybe it can work like this,’ or try to convince people it can – to actually see that it’s used in the way you envisioned, that is really, really great.” The project wasn’t without its challenges however, with the design process taking a year more than the municipality had hoped for. “Because it’s an old building,” she reasons, “you don’t know a lot of stuff when you start designing.” Concluding, Ingrid considers the building’s place as what some have dubbed the ‘next big thing’ in public libraries. “Libraries are having to think about their reason to be, and so they are changing their role in society,” she says. “Of course, libraries have been much than just a keeper of books for a long time already – they are about meeting, debating, and producing,” and, perhaps most important of all, “they seem to be one of the last public places in a city where you don’t have pay to be or to spend time.”

Project details

  • Steel structures: Klein Poelhuis
  • Steel window systems manufacturer: Jansen ODS
  • Steel window systems assembly: Facadis Gevelbouw
  • Steel handrails: Jonkers Bouwmetaal
  • Precast concrete: Mombarg Beton
  • Rooflights: JetBik
  • Wooden indoor window framing: SolarLux
  • Steel indoor framing manufacturer: JansenODS
  • Steel indoor framing assembly: Staalbouw ter Huurne
  • Glass interior walls: Vitriwand
  • Movable interior panels: Breedveld Paneelwanden
  • Interior contracting: Gieskes