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Architectural Icon: Luxembourg National Library
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Architectural Icon: Luxembourg National Library

by Sarita RAO 5 min. 31.07.2022
The country’s relatively new national library combines a thermal concrete design and a five-storey archive with spaces to reflect, to study, and for exchange and debate
The red exposed concrete panels were treated with sand blasting, water and even acid washing to create the patchwork effect
The red exposed concrete panels were treated with sand blasting, water and even acid washing to create the patchwork effect
Photo credit: Lex Kleren

The Luxembourg National Library (BnL) houses more than 1.8 million printed documents and publications. The collective memory of Luxembourg, it is an essential cornerstone in the country’s heritage, but also the Grand Duchy’s leading scientific and academic library.

Science, academic and cultural

The BnL collects, catalogues and preserves all printed and digital publications published in Luxembourg and any works published abroad that relate to the Grand Duchy. It’s academic and scientific status means that about three quarters of its printed collection comes from abroad. In addition to printed publications, the library offers its readers an ever-growing number of digital documents from e-books and electronic journals to digitalised Luxembourgish works, archived documents and web pages.

The space also houses the Bicherbus, plus the libraries of the Grand Ducal Institute and the Luxembourg Prehistoric Society.

The €112 million building was designed to showcase the library’s treasures, provide meeting spaces and educational rooms, and an atmosphere for both reflection and study, and debate and exchange.

German architects Bolles + Wilson from Münster have designed many music halls and schools, and were tasked with making the space not only functional as a library and for valuable document storage, but also as energy efficient and sustainable as possible. The library opened its doors in late 2019.

The building and archive

The paving on the forecourt and the foyer is the same, inviting you to walk in
The paving on the forecourt and the foyer is the same, inviting you to walk in
Photo: Anouk Antony

Located at the intersection of Avenue JF Kennedy and Boulevard Konrad Adenauer in the Bricherhaff part of Kirchberg, the building nevertheless stands out, not least because of its unusual exterior and shape, its red-cement façade, and its roof, which in part is elevated an additional 10m to allow it to be seen and recognised from a distance, and make it inviting to enter.

The building is split into three zones:

  1. The entrance zone with a two-story reception area, bordered by the conference room floor and consultation areas.
  2. The intermediary zone has more consultation decks facing outwards, with a glass façade.
  3. The area at the northwest comprises five storage levels in which the main heritage collections are stored, and above which you’ll find the main reading room which opens out to the treetops of Grunewald Park.

Given the library’s precious cargo which includes medieval manuscripts, maps, plans, prints, posters and artist books, the storage depots are designed to be secure and provide the right conditions. 

That’s why the compact five-level archive is at the centre of the building, encased by a wrapping of stone filled Gabion cages. This enables the archive to stay at a stable 18 degrees, important for the maintenance of historic documents. 

The archive itself is then surrounded by public spaces and a plateau on top, which incorporates the reading room and deck and the bookshelf areas.

Patchwork of pre-cast red concrete

The library’s façade is not only colourful but energy efficient. The main building is marked by red-tinged large scale exposed concrete blocks, whilst the windows and doors are framed by white pre-cast exposed concrete. The red pre-cast concrete panels look like a patchwork on purpose, due to a variety of surface treatments including water, sand-jetting and acid washing. Bolles + Wilson are known for their use of bright red materials and precise geometries.

The raised central area and red colour make it instantly recognisable
The raised central area and red colour make it instantly recognisable
Photo: Pierre Matgé

The façade is designed as a glazed two-level curtain wall with a double door entrance, whilst the forecourt, featuring natural stones, continues from the outside into the foyer with the same stone, creating a continuity from street to library.

A city-like interior

The reading rooms allow for about 300,000 works to be directly accessible to readers, and areas have plenty of work stations, but also more relaxed seating. If you just want to return a book, an automated book transport system allows you to return it 24 hours a day.

The BNL - the National Library of Luxembourg has numerous English language books you can borrow - paperback, hardback or digital for e-readers
The BNL - the National Library of Luxembourg has numerous English language books you can borrow - paperback, hardback or digital for e-readers
Photo: Chris Karaba

From the terraces of the reading hall visitors can see the whole space. The layout is not unlike a city, with wider and narrower roads and piazzas for reading and learning. The special red reading room is the heart of the library, and is illuminated at night so you can see it from the outside of the building.

The exhibition rooms on the first floor are designed to allow the library to showcase some of its treasures – which it has done, including an excellent one on the photography of Francis Frith, and the current exhibition on James Joyce and the rose-growing district of the city.

Unlike the previous library, the new BnL building has space for heritage appreciation activities, conferences and seminars and even a small café with a terrace. And despite its multi-functional requirements, the library still has a certain homogeneity, in its reinforced concrete walls, staircases and corridors. White walls, wooden windows and doors are brightened by bold colours on the floors and furniture.

Energy efficiency

The key principles of the technical and energy design are high performance insulation and air-tightness of the building’s envelope, sun protection and thermal inertia to maintain a constant temperature during summer and winter and avoid temperature-related damage.

Indeed technical installations for energy efficiency take second place to activating the building’s thermal mass to maintain the interior climate.

The system uses the latest energy efficient equipment to maximise thermal comfort, minimise heat loss, and cool and ventilate the building as naturally as possible. Cooling at night takes advantage of the renewable energy available in the air.

Geothermal heat pumps are installed below the foundation, and photovoltaic “solar” panels on the roof. Interior materials were chosen for their thermal absorption capacity to allow for the building to eradicate temperature extremes at night. The wide-span roof structure in laminated timber is thermally activated via air circulation within the roof layer.

In addition, the library design affords a high degree of natural lighting. The white glass lights on the shelves and even the reading table lights are all specially designed, and LED.

Flexible signage

The signage used by the National Library of Luxembourg pays homage to the public nature of the building, accentuating the space and making navigation intuitive. It uses numerical and alphabetical cubes in a modular signage system, which are easy to change and customise, as the library’s collection fluctuates and grows.

Visit the library

The reading room and media library are open Tuesday to Friday from 10.00 to 20.00 and Saturday 10.00 to 18.00. The loan and return, and information counters, are open weekdays until 19.00 and Saturday until 18.00. The exhibition space on the first floor is open when the library is open. You can find more information here


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