Proposed Green Square library and plaza by Stewart Hollenstein

Last week the City of Sydney announced the winner of its international architectural competition for the new $40 million Green Square Library and Plaza to the south of the city centre.

The winner is small Sydney practice, Stewart Hollenstein. The firm came second in my Archibabble competition last year (although I very much doubt they won the commission either because of, or in spite of, that accolade).

What distinguishes their entry is they’ve put most of the library underground, maximising the area of the plaza at or close to ground level. One of the judges, Glenn Murcutt, says:

The brilliant thing about this design is it is in fact a landscape. And being a landscape, the whole of it becomes the library.

I’ve leafed through all 173 entries. There are a few that propose using the exterior, especially the roof, as open space, but Stewart Hollenstein’s entry is the only one I’d describe as mostly subterranean.

There’s a report on the winning design and a video of the judges extolling its virtues. If you want to marvel at ‘black box’ decision-making in action, you can also read the jury’s report (nominally) explaining the basis for its selection.

What struck me most about this project though isn’t the architecture but the idea of dropping a cool $40 million on a library in a park.

We’re at the start of an era of electronic communication that’s already wreaking havoc on the newspaper and publishing industries.

Does it make sense to invest so much on what, when all the hype about “community hub” is stripped away, is a suburban branch library?

I wondered the same thing when the Victorian government and Melbourne city council announced last year that Dockland’s lack of community focus would be addressed in part by providing a library.

Docklands is a place where modest two bed units sell for circa $1 million. The residents are well-heeled and many are working visitors on short-term projects.

These aren’t, it seems to me, the sort of people whose lives are seriously lacking for the want of somewhere to borrow books. If they want one they’ll buy it and probably get it well before the library does.

If they want to meet people they’ve got a CBD’s worth of opportunities on their doorstep. They’re more likely to run across their neighbours in a local restaurant, a bar, or even Costco, than in a neighbourhood library.

The internet has already had a major impact on the role of lending libraries.

It’s made importing books from the likes of Book Depository a lot cheaper. Buying has gotten much more competitive with borrowing, especially for relatively well-heeled residents who’re time-poor.

The internet also provides the option of ebooks. They can be downloaded instantly at even lower prices, making buying a vastly more convenient option than borrowing.

And some libraries are making it easier still. My local library – the Yarra Plenty network – already provides the option of borrowing in ebook format via an arrangement with the wonderful Brisbane City Council Library.

I accept there’s very likely an important and ongoing role for something like libraries to curate the increasing volume and complexity of information. But that seems like it’s a highly centralised function.

Local libraries will nevertheless have a role in the short to medium term. They support activities like book clubs and preschooler sessions and there’ll be readers who insist on paper for some time yet.

It’s a declining function though, or at best one that isn’t likely to grow significantly. It seems doubtful that branch libraries are the sorts of facilities that justify tens of millions of new expenditure.

Council is also pitching the Green Square library and plaza as a “community hub”. It’s hoped it will bring residents of the area together.

That’s an important objective, however I can’t see the young, professional demographic of Green Square making a library the focal point of local life anymore than I can see it happening in Docklands.

If a library doesn’t attract users in large numbers then the project is essentially an extraordinarily expensive park.

No doubt this issue can be argued both ways. I’d really like to see the business plan for the library and, although I’m not confident one has been done, the benefit-cost analysis.

I see the value in creating a park in a central location like this, but I’d expect there are plenty of other competing projects that could lay claim to the rest of the money.

Whatever the value of the function might be, it’s an impressive-looking solution in my opinion. Congratulations to twenty something architects Felicity Stewart and Matthias Hollenstein.

Proposed Green Square library and plaza by Stewart Hollenstein

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