The Grimm Zentrum: Trials and Tribulations of Form and Function

by Madeline Dorvillier

We use libraries as tools, as a means to achieve learning and create academic work. I evaluate them based on this principal. Their design should foster concentration, creativity, and the drive to get things done, all the while promoting a comfortable and positive experience to maintain us through long cram sessions. Upon entering a well conceived library, one should feel a change in mood, a shift in psychology that leaves us completely immersed in the task at hand, a little bubble that leaves the world outside. The Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm Zentrum, built by Swiss minimalist architect Max Dudler accomplishes just this, if not for a few minor setbacks.

The Grimm Zentrum opened in 2009 as the central library of Berlin’s Humboldt University. It is a gleaming Jura marble temple towering above a rusty S-bahn line, demanding attention. It rises beyond the twenty-two meter city building height limit, putting it on the same level of the public buildings and institutions only allowed to exceed this limit. Immediately upon arriving, you know you are somewhere important. The building is not unlike the changing Berlin Mitte: beautiful, new, into contemporary design, filled with hipsters, and sometimes controversial. The tall thin windows of the minimalist exterior are meant to be evocative of books on a shelf, yet they remind me of the narrow and severe windows of the Nazi Air Force Ministry, an unfortunate inadvertent quotation, and an ironic one as well considering the Nazi’s feelings towards much of the literature it houses.


 The magic of the Grimm Zentrum lies inside. More than a building, the Grimm Zentrum is an experience. Perhaps this is why it was called a Center instead of a Library. It is efficient in many ways. The building is laid out along a central axis, with an abundance of interior windows allowing you to see through the entire build at any given point, making it easy to orient and navigate from anywhere inside, something that large and cavernous institutional buildings often fail at. At the library’s heart, a terraced reading room is warmed by cherry wood and capped with a glass roof. The terraces face each other across a vast airy void. The glass ceiling allows for maximum natural light, helping to mitigate fatigue from florescent lighting, keep up morale, and maximizing energy efficiency. Seeing the clouds above, one gets the feeling that they are reading outside, making studying seem not quite so bad and students more willing to buckle down.

Dudler has created a psychological experience when seated within the main reading hall. The confidence of the vast reading room is impressive. Its glory reminds us of our smallness, all the while inspiring us to grow. This feels like a serious space. With so many people under one roof, sharing one experience, collective focus is fostered. The mirrored terraces face each other, as if putting sitters on a stage. You are confronted with your peers who are free to watch you work. This means that workers behave accordingly. The layout fosters everyone to be on their best behavior, maybe even instigating the competitive among us to be the hardest worker in the room. Scrolling through Facebook feels like a disrespect to the greatness of this place, and the determined workers who surround.

At the same time, it is also incredibly inefficient. Dudler failed to account for the sun’s glare pouring though the glass roof. At certain hours, areas of the reading room are nearly unusable through the blinding rays. I never expected to need sunscreen and a hat at the library. Heavy doors are nearly impossible not to slam. Sound bounces off the many windows; the click of a pen is amplified across the stage. The dreaded locker system and strict security requirements for what can be brought into the library stops many from even entering in the first place. While the layout is inspiring and promotes productive work and a healthy mood, it is far from practical or efficient. With so much competition to snag a seat, one cannot help but wonder how many more reading spaces could have fit had even one of the terraces been filled in.

The failings of the Grimm Zentrum seem to stem from misdirected priorities. For a building supposedly meant for student use, it seems that bureaucracy is trying to make it as difficult to use as possible. Similarly, aesthetics seem more important to the architect than maximizing use. It is in many ways a building for the University image, for the sake of design, for great photographs, but not for actual students. Ultimately, the Grimm Zentrum is a fantastic case of form befitting function in the way that it promotes its purpose as a study tool, but at the same time, its form fails its function as hardly anyone is able to get a seat and actually use it.


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