There’s no scarcity of striking design and conceptual ingenuity when it comes to architecture in the New East, and the region’s many libraries are no exception. While some took inspiration from popular architectural trends of their time, others bear more eccentric characteristics, leaving visitors guessing as to the story behind them.
From a rooftop garden to a metal latticed exterior, a diamond-shaped glass façade to floor-to-ceiling mosaics, here’s our list of the most spectacular libraries to visit in the New East.
Alvar Aalto library
The tale of this Scandinavian modernist gem is one of political warfare. The library’s current hometown of Vyborg (Viipuri in Finnish) flip-flopped back and forth over the border between Finland and the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 40s, before finally falling again into Soviet hands in 1944. For nearly three quarters of a century the library was neglected, until joint funding from the Finnish and Russian governments supported impressive renovations. The facade was meticulously painted over and all of Aalto’s trademark interior designs — including the dozens of circular skylights that illuminate the reading room and the curved wooden ceiling of the lecture hall — were rehabilitated. The library was official inaugurated in 2013 after the works had been completed.
National Library of Latvia
In what might rank as one of world’s longest-running library projects, the new building of the National Library of Latvia on the shores of the Daugava River in Riga was completed and opened to the public in 2014. Discussion over the need for a new national library began in 1928, but it wasn’t until 2008 that construction companies signed on for the €163 million ($173.8 million) project headed by venerable Latvian-American architect Gunnar Birkets. Ahead of the library’s opening, around 14,000 Latvians citizens joined forces to transfer books from the old library to the new, a feat they managed by forming a 2 kilometre human chain to pass books from one to the other. Its mirrored asymmetric structure, topped with a jagged crown, gave rise to its local nickname the “Castle of Light”.
National Library of Kosovo
The rumours that have surrounded the design of the National Library of Kosovo since its 1982 inauguration have elevated the centre to almost mythical status. Designed by Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjaković, the library comprises large concrete blocks, each topped with one of 99 white domes of varying sizes. Some say that Mutnjaković channelled Byzantine and Islamic architectural forms for the library, others say that the traditional pre-Romanesque architecture typical to the Balkans was his guiding inspiration. More famously, the building drew ire from Serbian officials, who said that the white domes are reminiscent of the plisi, the national Albanian hat.
It’s no longer named the Lenin State Library of the USSR, but the Russian State Library overlooking the Kremlin still goes by its nickname Leninka among most of its regulars. The chandeliered grand entrance, with its sleek staircase and marble-spangled columns, belies the library’s darker interior. Occasional portraits of the library’s original namesake hang from the mahogany-panelled walls of the reading rooms, where, true to the fashion of Soviet-era public institutions, net curtains still hang over the windows shielding potted plants from sunlight. The pièce de résistance is doubtlessly the main hall, its towering windows flooding the light green walls and rows of desks with light.
Aficionados of eastern Europe’s concrete-heavy architecture will be delighted by Ukraine’s national library. Its uniform, windowless central column, a mass of concrete that appears to shoot out from the middle of the building, hides an intriguing interior. Inside, the typical aesthetic of Soviet libraries — namely a robust collection of potted plants of all sizes — are dotted in droves across reading rooms, or in the case of the gently spiralling staircase adorned with marble busts, planted in soil at the base. Perhaps the most striking feature is the lighting in the reading room, which shines down from the dozens of large, circular lights uniformly spread across the ceiling. Although it was established in 1918 the library claims older heritage: it holds the Orsha Gospel, a 13th-century book that’s one of the oldest to use Cyrillic script.
National Library of Belarus, Minsk
Belarus’s National Library in Minsk is a rhombicuboctahedron. That is to say, it’s an Archimedean solid with eight triangular and 18 square faces. Conveniently, locals have nicknamed the giant structure, which stands at 22 storeys high and is encased in blue-tinted glass that lights up at night, “the diamond”. It was designed by architects Viktor Kramarenko and Mikhail Vinogradov, the two winners of a USSR-wide contest in 1989 held to find the best architectural design for the national library's new building. "The diamond" opened its doors in 2006 and has a skydeck with views of most of Minsk on a clear day.
University of Warsaw Library
Not every library features a botanical garden on the roof, and not every library building has been blessed by the Pope. Given that the Warsaw University library boasts both, it’s a strong contender for the most unique library in the New East. The botanical garden, accessible to students and the public alike, covers one hectare of land on the roof and is home to hundreds of species of plants and flowers. There’s a fish pond and water feature tethered together by a stream, and you can often see ducks swimming or walking around. Glass features heavily in the crescent-shaped building to give as much natural light as possible, and covers one of the interior walkways, giving it the appearance of a high-ceilinged glasshouse.
National Library of Estonia
With 20 readings rooms, a large conference hall, a theatre and numerous exhibition areas, the National Library of Estonia in Tallinn is the largest library in the Baltics. The eight-storey brick structure, completed and opened to the public in 1993, was designed by leading Estonian architect Raine Karp, who built an additional two floors underground. The library has grown since its inception in 1918, when its 2,000 original titles were housed in two small rooms of the Toompea Castle, the parliament building. It now has over 5 million items and hosts a variety of cultural events throughout the year.
Text and image: Nadia Beard
Top image: Marco Fieber under CC licence
More from Literature
Read an extract from the activist author's new book, The Dilemmas of Lenin
Pajtim Statovci’s deep dive into Albanian identity politics