Quick Facts

  • Stockholm Public Library was the first open public library in Sweden
  • The architect based his design on the experience from a study trip across the United States
  • The library was opened to the public in 1928
  • Its design is mostly derived from functionalist principles

Right on the corner of two major avenues, Sveavägen and Odengatan, in what can be considered the modern city centre of Stockholm, stands one of the most notable contemporary buildings in the city. Stockholm Public Library building is more often than not regarded as an architectural masterpiece. As a pioneering project, it was meant to serve as an example for open public libraries in Sweden where this concept had not existed before.

Stockholm Public Library

A Trip Overseas

Prior to the construction, architect Gunnar Asplund and his colleague from the committee responsible for the city library project Fredrik Hjelmqvist left Stockholm for a trip across several cities in the United States. The goal of their journey was to study the concept of open libraries available to the public on the American continent. This idea had not been implemented anywhere in Sweden earlier and, therefore, the two men planned to observe everything from the workings of the concept itself to the architectural solutions that accommodated the needs of both the guests and the personnel of such libraries.

What they found was that modern libraries were seen as tools allowing people to educate themselves in order to become responsible members of the modern democratic society. These libraries were also supposed to be accessible to everyone although the definition of ‘everyone’ might have been dubious in the American society at the beginning of the 20th century.

Stockholm Public Library in Stockholm

The most important idea, however, was that the public was able to browse through books on the shelves freely without the need to involve the library personnel. This fundamental idea is the base of all modern libraries where people can pick up books as they wish while there is educated staff at their disposal to provide them with more information or help.

Moreover, the existence of designated library departments for children and the youth as well as close collaboration with schools was supposed to attract youngsters to reading and obtaining knowledge from all sources available to them. This mission was further supported by the presence of teaching rooms and rooms for group studies in most libraries.

Planning the Library

It was unusual for such an important public project to not select the architectural design via an open competition. In this case, however, the committee assigned Asplund to design the Stockholm Library Building.

Asplund’s original design followed traditions of classicism with tall columns decorating both southern and eastern entrances and a cupola in the middle of the building. Though, as classicism gave way to functionalism, the façade of the building was changed quite significantly and after having incorporated these changes into his plans, Asplund was officially appointed architect of the project in February 1924.

Design & Construction

Marble portals were designed instead of the columns decorating the entrances and the cupola was replaced with a tall cylinder as this shape allowed more natural light to the interior of the building. It also gave it a more prominent appearance thanks to the uniqueness of this geometrical shape and an overall clearer silhouette more in accordance with functionalist principles.

Stockholm City Library in Stockholm

Before the construction works started, one of the wings was removed from the plans since the estimated costs exceeded the budget by roughly 1 million SEK. Apart from that, several changes were made to the plans during the construction in order to lower the final costs of the library. These changes often meant using cheaper materials than originally proposed.

Stockholm Public Library was opened to the public in April 1928 although the building was completed already the year before. Soon after, in 1931, the construction of the west wing, which had been removed from the plans earlier, began and was completed in less than two years.

The building was made of plastered brick walls, which are typical of the Vasastaden district. Floors and the roof are made of iron girders and concrete and while the roof on top of the rotunda is covered by copper, its remaining parts are coated with asphalt. Portals and cornices were built using the most prominent material, marble from Gropptorp near Katrineholm west of Stockholm.

Stockholm Public Library from Vanadislunden in Stockholm

Windows had originally been designed to protrude from the walls and mean to be made of wood but only until the architect changed his mind and windows with simpler, iron frames were installed eventually. That was not the end of the story, though, as these were then replaced by wooden ones anyway as both the staff and visitors complained about the cold in the library premises.

The Interior

The interior of the library remains largely original to this day. Just like the exterior, it is relatively simple with subtle decorations that give it its unique character. In the reading rooms, you will find massive desks, which can accommodate dozens of people, and walls covered by shelves containing more than 2 million individual titles.

Stockholm City Library in Stockholm

In both large reading halls, there is a drinking fountain decorated with figures created by sculptor Nils Sjögren who is also the author of the sculptures displayed above the entrance to the children’s library. Among other notable interior decorations, you should notice the reliefs picturing scenes from the famous Homer’s poem Iliad by the main entrance to Stockholm Public Library.

Overall, the borrowing hall, which resides in the rotunda, was designed as the most exclusive part of the library. Even though its interior has changed since the 1920s, it is still clear that this part of the building is the most representative one. The hall also commonly hosts events and being in the centre of the building, it gives you access to all other rooms.

Stockholm Public Library in Stockholm

Plans for a Reconstruction

Recently, there was an initiative to renovate the library premises. An international architectural competition was announced in 2006 for a proposal that would modernise the building while preserving the original character of Asplund’s design. According to the committee, the winning proposal was meant to complement the existing design in such a way that the building would promote Stockholm on the international architectural scene.

German architect Heike Hanadas was selected as the winner from 1,170 proposals submitted into the competition in late 2007. However, his proposal was strongly criticised by media both in Sweden and internationally and following the changes in the city government, the project was put on hold a couple of years after the competition was finished.

Stockholm Public Library in Vasastan, Stockholm

On the bright side, you can still enjoy the original design of the building from the 1920s, which remains largely untouched. Whether you decide to enjoy a book in the rotunda or one of the reading halls or simply admire the architecture of the library building, I hope you will like this iconic construction in Vasastan and find the information from this post useful.

In the coming posts, I am going to show you more interesting places to see near Stockholm Public Library and also tell you the stories behind the most interesting of those places. In the meantime, join our growing community of travellers on Instagram or sign up for our newsletter so that you do not miss any new stories from Trevl.

Milos, Ingemark Anna, 2010. Stockholms stadsbiblioteket och Moderna museet. En analys av arkitekturkritik i svensk press.
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