Not by the book: Ghent’s new library is a multimedia living lab


After making headlines for the unconventional way it moved its books, De Krook media centre opens this month, as part of a much larger project to revive an unloved part of Ghent

Reading, learning, living

Ghent’s state-of-the-art library was making international headlines before it had even opened. When 1,250 people showed up to form a human chain transporting books from the old to the new site back in January, the BBC’s story on the event was picked up by channels across the world.

And this is only a precursor to the grand opening later this month, according to Annelies Storms, Ghent city councillor for culture and tourism. Storms is also the chair of De Waalse Krook neighbourhood development project, of which the library is a major part.

“Krook” is slang for kreuk, meaning crease, and refers to the sudden bend the Scheldt river makes in this corner of Ghent, near the Zuid transport hub. De Waalse Krook, the name of the area, is a reminder of the Walloon sailors who once travelled down the river from Hainaut with ships filled with coal.

In the 19th century, the area became popular for its cinemas, theatres and Winter Circus. By the 1970s, however, it was attracting less glamorous forms of entertainment. The bend in the Scheldt formed the border between the city’s red-light district and a collection of vacant garages and graffiti-lined streets on the other shore.

While prostitution was pushed back in the 1990s, the area remained run-down until 2011, when it began being cleared for new building projects. “It was a place you didn’t want to be in, unless you had some funny business going on,” Storms says. “But with this project, we’re giving a piece of the city back to the inhabitants.” 

Citizen participation

The De Krook library building – now finished and just a stone’s throw from the previous library building – is only one part of a comprehensive city renewal project, which also involves a complete makeover of the old Winter Circus building and the construction of two public squares and a summer terrace beside the water. Cyclists and pedestrians will soon be able to reach the centre of town directly via bridges around the library. 

The centrepiece, of course, is the new library building. With its revolutionary design – an inverted glass tower, with steel beams placed horizontally on the outside – the idea is to make it the “showcase of Ghent’s innovation narrative”, according to Storms. 

With this project, we’re giving a piece of the city back to the inhabitants

- Culture city councillor Annelies Storms

Ghent University will fill new office spaces with two of its cutting-edge media research centres, while imec, Europe’s largest nano-electronics and digital research institute, will house several of its teams here. 

Cross-pollination between researchers to speed up innovation is the first step in the new library’s master plan. Next: motivating citizens to become part of the research.

“Visitors to the library will be part of a kind of living lab,” Storms says. “As imec produces prototypes of wireless and virtual reality devices, visitors will get the chance to test them and deliver feedback. And the university’s institute of psycho-acoustics will have an underground laboratory for immersive experiments with visitors.”

When it comes to citizen input, De Krook will go even further. Analysing data about borrowed books will give a clear insight into what readers are most interested in. 

21st-century library

Based on this information, two themes will be picked each year as the subject of a series of exhibitions, debates and talks, to which imec and the university will contribute their knowledge and expertise.

“Imagine we see an increase of interest in burnout,” Storms says. “First we will organise a series of lectures and debates in the lecture hall. We will then ask university researchers to inform the public on progress in international research through exhibitions. Imec, in the meantime, can present its newest stress-meter prototypes.” 

Some people wonder whether a library is still necessary in the digital age. Well, it is

- Annelies Storms

There will be a cycle, she explains: The public chooses the most pressing matters, and experts will keep them updated on the state of affairs in science and technology. Citizen participation must drive innovation, Storms believes: “It’s an exchange. This building is the ultimate embodiment of that philosophy.”

As well as being a hub for science, technology and entrepreneurship, De Krook will fulfil its traditional duty as a city library, with more of a consulting role than before. “Some people wonder whether a library is still necessary in the digital age; well, it is,” says Storms. “We are being flooded with information, but sources can be questionable. Our staff, relieved from the burden of moving books by a fully automatic transport system, will be able to offer readers their literary expertise.”

In the meantime, visitors can consult legal experts, students can get career advice, Vormingplus will provide professional training in the sociocultural sector, and student radio will be broadcasting 24 hours a day.

“It’s all about reading, learning and living,” says Storms. “That’s what the library of the 21st century should offer.” 

Find your rhythm

Flemish architects Ralf Coussée and Klaas Goris won the competition to design De Krook in 2009. They believe their victory over architecture superstar and Pritzker-prize winner Toyo Ito – one of the other bidders – was thanks to their sensitivity regarding the scale of Ghent.

Coussée takes us on a small journey through the structure’s most important elements. The first challenge, he says, was to build something with the required space – 18,000 square metres – without creating a monster.

“We didn’t want to build an international project, an ‘eye-catcher’ that would be interchangeable with buildings in somewhere like Seoul or Chandigarh.”

They did everything they could to make the structure blend into its surrounding – first by mimicking the city’s patterns. “There’s a rhythm in Flemish townhouses, an intricate game of squares and rectangles that we Flemings often see as a product of our indecision or lack of rules,” says Coussée. “Aesthetically it’s actually quite nice and unique. The steel beams around the glass cage of our building mimic this rhythm, adding fragility, while the horizontal placement pushes the building down.” 

A roof over the city

Besides that, he points out that there is no way to see the building in full. “The sudden bend in the river – which is also typical of this city’s medieval centre – is copied. The building bends so it can never be seen from front to back at the same time.”

Two of the building’s floors are underground, “and when you’re facing the building’s side from below, the steel beams follow an irregular pattern into the sky instead of staying constant,” he says. “It adds a sense of humility.”

Another element the architects are particularly proud of is the agora, the building’s ground floor. When they stand on the new concrete Miriam Makeba Square, visitors will see the ground continuing into the building, stopped by nothing but a glass wall. 

It’s as honest as a building can get. The older it gets, the more beautiful it will be

- Ralf Coussée

“The square is the city; we’ve put a roof over its head,” says Coussée. “It illustrates that this is a place for all inhabitants, easily accessible and open. Once inside, visitors can go deeper: up to the culture library or down to the science library.”

One floor below ground level, Coussée and Goris have imagined a new outdoor leisure space. “We chose to lower the shore by two metres,” he explains. “This is the only place in the city where people can dip their feet into the water. Surrounded by grass and trees, this could easily become a meeting place with the same allure as the Graslei.”

But the true genius and main message of the structure’s design lie in its successful combination of durability and aesthetics. Having dreamed of building a structure that needed no treating, painting or scrubbing for decades, the architects have made it happen.

“It’s as honest as a building can get,” says Coussée. “We show glass, concrete and steel – the only three materials used in the building – in their true colours, with their natural patina. The older it gets, the more beautiful it will be. It was designed not to fall victim to trends in fashion or taste.” 

Opening weekend

Have you ever delved into the social life of robots or tried lifting yourself off into the air in a virtual reality trip? De Krook is inviting people to discover something new around every corner at the grand opening this weekend. Prominent writers and poets will present new work while staff and collaborators are available to have a chat.

10-12 March, De Krook, Miriam Makebaplein 1, Gent

Photo: Karin Borghouts