Aesthetics and usability – the Jacob-and-Wilhem-Grimm-Zentrum

by René Georg Johansen

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The Grimm-Zentrum is a modern library of Humboldt Universität in Berlin, which is designed by architect Max Dudler and was finished in 2009. With its stubborn and thorough rectangular repetition in the façade, the interior and even in the furniture, this building can easily be defined as an architectural masterpiece of Dudler’s. The building has already been praised for this with prizes like the BDA-Preis Berlin 2009, Architekturpreis Berlin 2009 and the BDA-Architekturpreis ‘Nike’. The library houses several different kinds of people working there, since the building has a café, with a kitchen staff cooking and selling coffee to the students, and guests of the library. There are also the obligatory librarians helping students with maneuvering around the system of checking books in/out, handling one’s locker and buying food – all with the students’ so called Mensa-card. And lastly, there is also security personnel working in the lobby, where they make sure that students and guests bring no more than a see-through plastic bag with water, pens, papers, books and a sleeveless laptop into the library.

Other than all the prices and praises the library has won for the architecture, it has received quite some critique for its weak usability. The usual critique taken up by newspapers is focusing on the problem with too few lockers, while other critiques point towards the fact that a lot of homeless people go there to stay and/or sleep, the inadequate amount of places for students to sit, making them sit on the floor to both eat and study, the rigid system of security, not allowing any coffee, food or jackets inside the library, and lastly, the lack of power outlets for students’ laptops etc. In this critique though, I will focus on the problems with the library becoming too popular, with non-student visits that conflicts with the security regulations.

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As a student of Ethnology at Humboldt Universität in Berlin, I perceive this building as a working place where students should get their things done, like studying and writing assignments, which requires time, food and coffee. It is from this perspective of usability where this critique is going to focus. From the first time I tried using this working space I met some challenges that I never experienced at other libraries. As I will argue, building and designing a library is not only about aesthetics and interpretations of other buildings – which Dudler is known for and which is obvious in this building – because part of the problems that have arisen concerning usability are connected to the commercial success of the library, which has come solely from its design. So since the library’s architecture is so aesthetically interesting it has become a tourist attraction, which not only attracts people who wants to work in the building, but people with interest in photo-documenting and experiencing the library. These people curiously walk into the normally silent study-areas taking pictures and chatting in a low voice about the architectural style or whatever comes to their minds when wandering around. And this disturbs the students. As I previously pointed out, jackets are not allowed, so on top of this, the rigid security system forces the tourists to go down in the basement and occupy more of the already few lockers, potentially taking them from the students who are there to work. But the small amount of tourists are not the biggest external users of lockers, because the commercial success of the library also brings interest for guided tours inside the hallways of the library, with groups and whole classes of young or older people. On the one hand, this also disturbs the students with noise from the guided group which is louder than the sound of the curious guests walking alone; and on the other hand, these groups must also follow the regulations of the library, which states no jackets inside, so they also must go find a locker.

These tourists are not bad in themselves, but they become disturbing when the working place, that this library is supposed to be, isn’t designed to house tourists. It doesn’t seem like Dudler planned that the commercial success of the library would attract other people than students and professors, and therefore, with the circumstances that are given from the architecture and the security system, these tourists become a disturbing factor, because they just weren’t a part of the architectural equation. These problems have affected the usability of the library for the students, which is a shame since a library first and foremost should be a place for working and not for gazing.

The bad usability seems to be an unexpected surprise for the administration of the library too. As a student there, one can feel that the staff are trying to deal with these problems, because from day to day there can suddenly be new regulations on signs on the walls (for instance new rules for student ID in some of the study areas) and other signs that have been corrected yet again with black markers by the staff. Maybe in some years the problems will have been solved, but until then, the Grimm-Zentrum feels like a library that is caught between either providing good usability or sustaining a good image. Right now it seems that the library best suits the people that do not use it regularly.

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all images by the author

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