Need to Concentrate – Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Zentrum

by Nichole Wong

For any student at the Humboldt University, the Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Zentrum is no stranger. Designed by Max Dudler Architects, the library was opened in the Spring of 2009. The stone and glass building stands firmly beside the S-Bahn tracks leading to the nearby S-Friederichstraße and is just a few hundred metres from the universitys main building and the Staatsbibliothek.

The Grimm Zentrum is undeniably unconventional, at least compared to most university libraries, in the way that it induces the sense of space and the use of light. Travelling towards S-Friderichstraße, the building demands to be noticed. The first reason being that it is such a large building, albeit being placed in such a tight space between the surrounding buildings and behind the elevated S-Bahn tracks. Only the small courtyard affords people some open space amongst the rows of parked bicycles. In Berlin where it is mostly flat, buildings are usually restricted to a height of 22 metres, except for public buildings. The Grimm Zentrum stands proudly at 38 metres tall. Its sandy colour and mass refers to the many cultural institutions on Museum Island down the road.

As one walks towards the building you notice the long narrow windows covering the facade on all sides. Glimpses of hard-working students can be seen from the outside. The rows of bookshelves, housing some 2.5 million items are aligned with the section of the walls between the windows, allowing light to flood through. If you travel fast enough by the S-Bahn and look inside, it creates an interesting visual illusion.

The greatest feature of the Grimm Zentrum is the large reading hall that occupies the centre of the library. It occupies the space of four stories with receding levels on both sides; therefore each floor is almost like a ring around the hall. Most of the light comes from the skylights, creating a natural and open space for reading and studying. Many people find that the feeling that one can always be observed, from the sides, above and below, motivates them to concentrate on their work. Reading rooms and PC rooms are also nicely hidden on each floor and are oriented around this large seemingly ceiling-less hall.

While the space forces one to concentrate, as any library would try to do, it gives the feeling that the architects want to squeeze as many elements in the building as possible. For those who are looking for materials, they are forced to walk all around the room, always feeling lost. The main stairway can only be found on one of the longer sides of the rectangular floor plan, again forcing users to walk all the way from one side of the floor to the other. While there are some stairways to get from one floor to the other without going all around the reading room, it feels like going up and down a fire escape.

The Grimm Zentrum is an aesthetically pleasing building and creates some interesting experiences through the use of space. However as a study-area, it feels as though the architects have placed more emphasis on individual workspaces rather than collective ones. The rooms feel like they are trying to separate people rather than to encourage a collaborative workspace. Students who want to meet will find that there are not enough open-sitting or lounge areas and resort to sitting on the floor of the lobby, or choosing to work in one of the cafes just opposite the main entrance. Nonetheless, a high volume of users come to this library for its impressive collection of books and to experience at least once the awe-inspiring feeling of sitting at one of the top tiers of the reading room, taking it all in.


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