New BEIC: a library from the future

Milan's new library, the Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura (BEIC, "European Library of Information and Culture"), will be a place of historical knowledge but also of new stories. Alumnus Angelo Lunati of Onsitestudio, the studio leading the winning project team, tells us about it.

In 1996 the Association “Milano Biblioteca del 2000” was founded with the aim of promoting the construction of the European Library of Information and Culture. One of the many voices that have spoken in favour of this project over the years is the writer and essayist Claudio Magris: “In my opinion, this is a very important initiative, namely a European library with a large multimedia structure, which will combine books and digital media, all with free access and open shelving, thus providing a powerful, comprehensive tool for information, education, culture and, in the broadest sense, civic education. Institutions of this kind exist in Paris, New York, San Francisco and Munich, where they have been and continue to be very successful, whereas in Italy there is no large library of this kind”. In 2026, it will finally be there. In fact, at a public session on 11 July 2022, the winner of the design competition run by the City of Milan was announced, the Italian group formed by, among others, designers from Onsitestudio as well as Baukuh, dot dot, Abnormal, Luca Gallizioli and Yellow Office. “We are a very large team of architects and the result of our projects is always the result of teamwork,” says Alumnus Angelo Lunati, co-founder of Onsistestudio along with Alumnus Giancarlo Floridi, “In this specific case, the team also included digital and climate change experts, who built the pillars of the project's idea: a new library capable of being a flexible, constantly renewable platform”.

What does “new library” mean? 

A place of the archaic and the futuristic. A library capable of combining the dimension of the book and the universe of documents, where the idea of the nineteenth-century public library, where the knowledge of centuries is stored, reigns supreme, and the dimension of digital and contemporary cultural creation, where knowledge is created. The building, made up of two trapezoidal wings, will immediately convey the image of a hard-working, productive place, thanks to the archetypal reference of its shape, which recalls the large roofs of the factories of yesteryear. At the same time, it will have the modernity of a greenhouse, in dialogue with the park in which it will be located, the former Porta Vittoria railway yard. A monumental building, spectacular in its size - it will be 35 metres high - and at the same time with an ordinariness of its own given by the floors of the library, which are repeated vertically with a very simple floor plan.

Almost as if it were a book, let's open this library and go inside: what will be revealed? 

Firstly, the ground floor of the building will be a large open civic space, conceived as an outdoor area, i.e. it will not be air-conditioned; the idea is that the library will have air-conditioned parts that alternate with others that function like a large greenhouse. Departments ranging from Arts and Literature to Humanities and Social Sciences to Science and Technology will be housed in the south wing. At the top, a terrace with a reading room. The north wing, on the other hand, will be the most usable and most open to the possibility of hosting cultural events, then a floor dedicated to a fab lab and a floor dedicated to co-working, moving upwards with a gaming room and recording studio through to an exhibition space with the possibility of access to and use of a radio station. In short, production spaces equipped with the means to reach worlds not accessible to everyone. A large platform will connect the two buildings: on the second floor, the two worlds will be linked by a bridge between the traditional and innovative dimensions.

Since we are also in a literary field, what significance does this bridge have? 

It can be an analogy, a bridge to culture, as there is a system of stairs that provides access to the different floors and at the same time allows us to see them in a vertical line. Crossing this bridge, visitors will be able to perceive the breadth of culture and knowledge that exists and is transmitted here, almost like a visionary walk that will also allow them to delve deep: the ground level floor will have a series of portholes through which visitors will be able to look into the basement storeroom, which will contain 2.5 million books. An archive manned by small robots that will fetch books and distribute them thanks to mechanised systems on the different floors; and by feeding these two wings, this will also show the size of the document collection, which in most libraries is not on display, or not displayed in its entirety. At the BEIC, however, it will be visible from the foyer of the Auditorium.

Where will the Auditorium be located? 

In a third pavilion we have named the Imaginarium, which will be the children's library. We imagined it to have a very different architecture than the large main building: a red building, built entirely of wood, thus with a more homely feel, in some respects also more domestic and with very large and flexible spaces. The auditorium, which will be located below the Imaginarium, will have 300 seats and its own programme of shows and events. Also in this same building, there will be a room accessible from the outside 24 hours a day, so that there will always be a place to study and engage with the contents of the library. I remember when I was a student, when I had to prepare for exams, I would always look for a place to study, so I would go to libraries that closed as late as possible.

Which two books do you consider to have been fundamental for your education? 

The first is Esperienza dell'architettura by Ernesto Nathan Rogers, a book that has significantly condensed, through a collection of texts compiled over a long career and often the result of a personal narrative, the concerns and ambitions of an intellectual architect in a decisive period for Italian culture, illustrating an extraordinary idea of modernity, in my opinion still valid in the current day and age. The second book, Unconscious Places, is a collection of photographs by Thomas Struth, accompanied by a text by Richard Sennett, of ordinary places in cities such as Düsseldorf, Naples and New York, in which the tension between the singularity of the buildings and their setting, the additive and transformative character of urban places, and their surprising physical unity are revealed in extraordinary ways.

What is the most important lesson that the Politecnico di Milano has taught you? 

Understanding the project as a successful combination of the experimental and the empirical, together with the search for forms of cultural continuity, is in line with the spirit that has long promoted the modernisation of the city of Milan, characterised by an anti-dogmatic idea of progress "rooted" in the culture of the place.