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Culture

A Tale of Two Libraries

New library reading rooms are something of a trend across Europe. From Paris to London, Copenhagen to Dresden, they've all got one. Now Berlin is to get one too.

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The future face of Berlin's library

The reading room, which will be part of Berlin's National Library will be a mixture of wood, books, glass and light. Designed by Stuttgart architect HG Merz, the unusual thing about this virtually square construction is that it will be built into the former Prussian National Library, 40 percent of which was destroyed during the war, on the historic Unter den Linden boulevard.

From the outside, the central building of the National Library, which is situated in the former east, would appear to be intact. But the external walls have long been hiding a gaping hole which has scarred the inside of the building since 1945. The once glorious dome room, which was modeled on the British Museum hall, was the very heart of the building until it was bombed into non-existence during World War II. During the 1980s, the responsible authorities, desperately short of space, had four concrete and steel storage towers erected to house some two million books. Work has now begun to remove the towers, which are being sawn into small pieces for ease of removal.

Planned completion in 2011

Although work has only just begun on the gradual removal of the four towers, construction was carried out on the library between 1990 and 2000 to secure the substance of the building. Ten years on, there's still plenty of work to be done. Although it is anticipated that the new reading room will be ready for use in the year 2007, the renovation of the entire building complex, which has a larger surface area than the Reichstag building, is not expected to be finished any earlier than 2011.

Experts estimate that the construction of the new reading room alone will cost close to €320 million ($345 million), but no official estimate has been released. Given the large scale of the project, and the fact that the new National Library built in the west of the city during the Cold War is already running at stretched capacity, the Unter den Linden library will have to remain open for the duration of the building work. Construction noise is not what most people wish for during a trip to the library, so construction workers at the site are using sound-absorbing equipment to keep the sighs to a minimum.

Paris and London library slips

On the wish and order of the late French President Francois Mitterand, almost the entire stock from Bibliotheque Nationale on the Rue des Archives was moved to a building on the outskirts of the city. Architect Dominique Perrault erected four glass towers in the shape of open books on the bank of the river Seine. Although at the time, the construction drew praise for France and its president, it has since been a constant source of criticism amongst library experts and curators, who maintain that the climatic conditions are catastrophic for book stocks. In addition, there are so many technical problems, that the new "Francois Mitterand" library is often closed for several days at a time.

Across the Channel in London, the British Library was long housed in the same magnificent building as the famed British Library. But after 150 years of co-habitation, library and museum were prised apart, and the famous dome room in which Karl Marx is said to have penned his thoughts is now home to artefacts rather than books. After a 25 year planning period, 1998 saw the library finally move to a new building at St. Pancras, which architecture critics slammed as aesthetically out of date. It is never going to be possible to please all the critics, and with many years of renovation stretching out ahead, there is surely scope for complaints, but Berlin has an advantage which neither London nor Paris enjoyed: a solid foundation in the historic heart of the city.