Design of the Year 2007
Bishan Community Library
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Architects
Look Boon Gee (Team Leader)
Ng Sor Hiang
Lim Eng Kwee
Ng Jia Hui
Esther Yong Tinjein
LOOK Architects
Owner
National Library Board, Singapore
Civil and Structural Engineer
Meinhardt (Singapore) Pte Ltd
Mechanical and Electrical Engineer
Meinhardt (Singapore) Pte Ltd
Quantity Surveyor
BEC Consultants
Main Contractor
Sunhuan Construction Pte Ltd
Landscape Interior Designers
LOOK Architects

LOOK Architects was founded in 1993 by partners, Look Boon Gee and Ng Sor Hiang, who both graduated from the University of New South Wales with Honours. Boon Gee also obtained his Master of Architecture by Project from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. The firm’s design philosophy is rooted in identifying the necessities and aspirations of the people and place to arrive at a unique solution for each project, coupled with the constant exploration and experimentation with new building technology to push for the maximum design potential and celebrate the human spirit of design. They conscientiously avoid the dogmatic trappings of following architectural manifestos and choose to approach each project with an open mind. This architectural approach is evident in their numerous award recognitions like the BCAs Best Buildable Design Awards for 28 Eng Hoon Street in 1999 and 17 Tavistock Avenue in 2000, Arcasia Awards for Architecture 2001-2002 for No. 5 Gemmil Lane and the 7th SIA Architectural Design Award for 70 Seletar Hills Drive.

Their design of the Bishan Community Library had won them local and international accolades for its architecture. "Look Boon Gee has created a library that does two things: it creates urbanity by promoting a public institution in a commercial district, exquisitely leavening the dough of everyday activity and ennobling the surrounding commercial fabric. And it provides an interior experience that inspires the love of learning," says Leon van Schaik AO, Professor of Architecture (Innovation Chair), RMIT University, who provided an insightful observation on the Library.

"There is a strong and consistent push to think out of the box - to re-think the concept of a library and its role to the community. The new library needs to reach out and engage the interest of the people. Located at one of the typical satellite town centres in Singapore, the design tries to inject a sense of fun into the monotony of heartland living to invigorate and inspire the pursuit of knowledge," says Boon Gee.

The metaphor of a tree house was invoked in the design conceptualisation to create an environment for learning via a journey of discovery and play. The use of skylights, trellises and coloured glass both inside and outside to filter the incoming natural daylight resulted in a myriad of shades and colours. This created a conducive and comfortable dappled light quality in the library interior, simulating the filtered light through the foliages of trees. The children's library was designed to be in the basement, both due to practical segregation of noises, as well as to allow them a private realm where their imagination could run free in a themed-design subterranean cavern with colourful feature wall reliefs that extend to become furniture.

'Pods' are cantilevered off the building main façade over the busy streets below, as well as in the building atrium, to afford more private spaces. They serve as hotspots for hobby groups, acting as intimate spaces for the exchange of ideas or quiet reflection by the individual users. The unique building façade raises the library above the anonymity of its mixed used neighborhood and creates a joyful building that sparks the interest of the community. The clear planning separates the library into three distinct zones (i.e. collection, services and circulation).

The back of house services are all concentrated in a solid core on the western elevation that shields the building from the harsh evening sun. This, coupled with the effective structural solution, allows a huge column-free space for flexible collection and library activities planning. A tall atrium space links the different floors together, allowing spatial and visual interactions between different user groups. A generous ramp in the atrium draws people from the street into the heart of the building while helping to discharge crowds effectively after events. The atrium acts as the fulcrum of the building, helping to build a sense of arrival for visitors and liberate the library from the physical constraint of a tight site.

Departing from the traditional concept of libraries as merely stoic repository of knowledge, the architectural approach emphasised on the experiential quality of spaces. This is critical in an age where the senses are numbed by the internet.

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ABOUT THE DESIGNER

JURY CITATION

As a recent addition to a public housing estate, Bishan Community Library has rapidly grown to become a symbolic centre of the community, and has impacted positively on local life and the streetscape.

With a modest budget and programme, the library appears to be a simple building, but there is a high concentration of delightful details, demonstrating the virtuosity and commitment to good design.

A clear solution of projecting glass boxes is deployed on its main façade, and by extending these boxes from outside into the ramped internal street, a feeling of continuity is created. When one makes a transition from the entrance to the bookshelves, the promenade evokes a quiet sense of drama, space and volume.

In terms of building orientation and façade treatment, the design also takes environmental considerations into account. The east and west walls are given a more opaque treatment, with services located and shielded by the west wall.

Attention is consistently given to details such as the creation of semi-public/private spaces for reading, splayed treatment of the east wall windows and in the design of graphics and carpets. Through the clever choice of colours and furnishings, the design creates a cheerful environment and engages users across all ages, effectively making a particularly distinctive public building with a few deceptively simple devices.

The Jury applauds the design, for fulfilling its promise of being a community building in every way.

NOMINATOR CITATION

LOOI CHEE KIN
ARCHITECT
LOOK ARCHITECTS

The completed project, Bishan Library, displays all the virtues of thoughtfulness, a touchstone in the canon of such an exceptional public building – arguably amongst the most loved by the public and the cognoscenti.


DR ONG BOON LAY
SENIOR LECTURER
DEPARTMENT OF ARCHITECTURE
SCHOOL OF DESIGN AND ENVIRONMENT
NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE

Legend has it that Aristotle taught the kings of Egypt to set up a library, the Great Library of Alexandria, in 300 BC. The goal was to collect half a million scrolls and King Ptolemy I wrote to all the sovereigns and governors he knew asking them to send him works of every kind. In the United Kingdom, every book published in the nation, including pornography, is deposited in the major national libraries. Books are important and libraries are important because they are the warehouses of books. Indeed, libraries are nothing less than the repository of a nation’s collected wisdom.

As a young nation, Singapore values libraries as a place of learning, and while there are many libraries around, there are fewer local publications in them than there are international ones. We have not begun to collate our own wisdom and treasure what our history and the people who made and wrote that history has to say.

Look Boon Gee, the architect behind the design of Bishan Community Library, did not dismiss his own history with libraries and the reading of books in the design of this new library. And in remembering the past, he is able to make the future of reading more than just a relationship between the reader and the book. Readers today read from the computer a lot more than they read from books. But the relationship remains the same: an enquiring mind meeting the thoughts of another mind.

Bishan Community Library captures well this dialectics of differences and similarities. In many ways, the library harks back to days of old, and reminisces experiences of reading under the shade of trees. And yet, it is clearly a modern library, with modern facilities and modern aesthetics. It talks about the rainbow, an icon dating so far back as to be almost timeless. In our memory, it dates from forgotten childhood while in our history, it dates from millennia past. The rainbow is also universal - a thing of joy in the temperate countries as much as it is for the tropics.

The rainbow then appropriately frames the front façade of the library and does so with gestures of shades and overhang. It is a welcoming gesture, as well as an uplifting one. The poetics with nature continues indoors, where a garden in the basement awaits the children. While hard climate beats down outside the library, the inhabitants of this paradise can appreciate the wonders of nature from within the safety of their modern cave.

Boon Gee had to work to a budget and the library has to fulfill its function of administration and book-lending. But the hearts of the librarians, of the readers, and clearly of the architect as well, are not on the mundane but on the promise of the imagination. This is the real task of architecture - to take prose and make it poetry.


TAI LEE SIANG
DIRECTOR
DP ARCHITECTS PTE LTD

The Bishan Community Library challenges the notion of library as a place of repository. At first glance, it conveys a place of community celebration of knowledge and interaction. Changing the public’s perception of the library being a drab and dull place to one of great liveliness and stimulating learning is the first of many challenges that an architect faces when designing. Boon Gee not only works within a tight budget but also a tight site to create a building that is larger than life.

In current times when buildings thrive on sensationalism, it is highly commendable to see a community building based on rationalism and a sense of place-making. First of all, the planning of the complex takes its cue from the age-old adage of ‘less is more’. Obviously inspired by the great modernist thinking, Boon Gee laid out the floor plan almost in a no nonsense manner to clearly define the served and service space. The vertical circulation is celebrated to make ascending the building all the more a beautiful experience. The execution on plan is exquisite and excellent.

The glass boxes that project beyond the façade are somewhat playful. This is a departure from the rather strict disciplined approach to planning. This is not to be perceived as inconsistency but rather a need to change the perception of community library. Contrary to the traditional expectation of a library as ‘vault-like’ and unfriendly, the community library in Singapore must now be seen as a ‘happening place’ where the young and old are welcome to make it a place of learning and interaction. The transparent façade allows the views from the street into the innermost heart of the building.

Boon Gee defines the entire building as a tree house for learning and the hanging glass boxes as ‘pods’ - a quiet place for solace and reading. It is also likened to books pulled out of the shelves. Whatever the interpretation, the verdict is out: the pods are well-liked and they rekindle the cosiness that young minds crave for. It is hard to define if such architectonic expression is indeed mind-changing and heart-inspiring or it borders on stunning effects. What really matters is how well this building engages the imagination of the community it seeks to serve. From the way the youth laps up the building spaces, especially the pods, it is no doubt that community is endearing itself to the landmark.

It is heartening to see an architecture jewel stand out in the fast-congested heartland town centre. In the midst of loud commercial voices, Bishan Community Library is making all the right noises and striking the right chord with the community.

I hereby recommend Bishan Community Library to be considered favourably for President’s Design Award, Design of the Year Award.