In the late 1950s, the city of Helsingborg, Sweden, began to consider building a city library. There was debate about the right location for the building. The Stadsparken, or central city park was the proposed location. Not surprisingly, the chief city gardener was opposed, while the city librarian was a proponent. Later, when the building was nearly finished, the librarian recorded his rationale in a library journal. “… [S]hould the library compete for the precious square meters in a noisy city or retreat to an undisturbed peripheral location?” he asked. In fact, the north and south sides of the city were quite segregated by economics and culture so the idea of locating the library in a park which was the midpoint between the north and south was one of the arguments which won the day.
From the outset, the parameters for the building were that it would be a two-story form, more or less 40 meters square, with a higher interior space which would serve as the primary book depository and main reading room. By 1961, the local architect Jörgen Michelsen took on the project. His design placed the entry of the building in line with an existing fountain already located at convergent pathways in the center of the park. The exterior facades he designed were a bit heavy, with an insistent horizontality, broken by the surprising upthrust vertical walls of the building’s most important space, that two-story triple-height interior reading room, located on the east side of the building.
The building’s interior offered a clear but well thought out diagram for use, coupled with a humanistic impulse to make the building as much a local meeting place as a library, and to create public spaces designed to enrich their users’ experience.
The main brick-floored hallway followed directly from the front door, funneling through parallel walls and then bisecting the floor plan into two related parts. To the left (east) is the ground floor of the high reading hall.
To the right was originally an open-air atrium, surrounded by windows and doors, and visible from most rooms of the building. Both of these were designed as vertical open spaces, one closed to the sky but high-ceilinged, a kind of metaphorical sky, and one open to the sky; one defined by its enclosing brick walls, one defined by its enclosing windows.
The plans of the buildings are below
Long before every public building had a coffee bar, Michelsen envisioned a library where you might take your book or magazine and a coffee and head out into “a comfortable basket chair” in the atrium. He called the atrium, “a breathing space.” Unfortunately, this atrium had some problems from the outset. The tree around which it was originally planned, died. There was bamboo planted next, which didn’t work either.
The atrium floor was designed to be of dark tile, with a fountain of burnt Helsingborg clay designed by Robert Nilsson who was a multi-talented mid-century sculptor and wood carver. Nilsson was also the husband of textile artist, Barbro Nilsson, who had been commissioned to design tapestry panels for the main library reading room. Initially the atrium courtyard was used for outdoor concerts, but in 1994 it was roofed over with a steel-framed and glass-paneled roof, which, while it may be much more practical in this northern climate, seems at odds with the original intent and materials of the building. In 2005, 40 years after the building was constructed, Michelsen and Sören Sommelius, a local cultural critic, wrote the book, called Återblick, “Looking Back,” about the library building process. In a more recent article, Sommelius mentions that by 2005, Michelsen was discouraged about a number of the ways in which the building had been altered. The roofing over of the atrium roof was probably one of them.
However, the the main library reading room remains as Michelsen designed it. The tall interior wing walls which both introduce light and define four book alcoves, the high ceiling, and the central open well are the primary features of the space.
When the building was under construction, these walls were still their natural brick color, with what Michelsen describes as, “all its color-shimmering roughness.” When Michelsen told Robert Nilsson that they would be painted white to offset all of the colors of the varied book covers and bring more reflected light into the space, Nilsson, the sculptor of clay and wood, responded that painting the brick walls would be a “sacriledge,” But once his wife’s colorful tapestries were installed, Nilsson agreed that they looked terrific hung against the white-painted brick walls.
From 1964-66, Barbro Nilsson worked on a series of gobelin tapestries which shared some of the same elements. The first of three woven in 1964 was called Solbandet (The Band of Sun) woven for a Norrköping church organization; the next, this one, called Solvägen (Path of the Sun) for the library; and the third, Solen (The Sun) for a Sölvesborg’s church organization. A tapestry called Solfläcker (Sun Spots) for the Svenska Händelsbanken in Stockholm followed in 1966, and the same year, a series of 7 tapestries for Sydsvenska Kraft AB (called Sydkraft and later E.ON) in Malmö was also completed.
Barbro Nilsson’s Solvägen tapestry woven for this library in 1964 anticipates the important series of tapestries Nilsson would design for the Sydkraft energy company in Malmö. (See earlier 2017 blog post on the E.ON tapestries, titled “Barbro Nilsson’s Energetic River Horses”). Comparing the two designs— this library tapestry, Solvägen, (Path of the Sun) and a similarly colored one for Sydkraft which represented nuclear power— lets us see how much Nilsson had already developed the vocabulary of forms, colors, and weaving techniques she would use in the subsequent series.
An amusing and informative video clip shows part of the cleaning this tapestry in 2017.
The second tapestry designed for the Helsingborg library reading room, called Blåsväder (Windy Weather) is located diagonally opposite the first. It was woven in 1967, two years after the library opened, and after the Märta Måås Fjetterström weavers had completed her tapestries for Sydkraft. The red Xs on the sketch floor plan below show the locations of the two tapestries, both placed so as to be visible both by those studying and by those moving around the open light well.
As is appropriate to this very maritime city, Nilsson’s second tapestry evokes wind, waves, eddies, currents and watery depths in its colors and woven shapes and lines. It is also a vigorous contrast to the sunny tapestry on the south wall.
In recent years, the library has not received the care it needs. And there have been proposals to move the library itself elsewhere and use this building as a cultural or art center. One citizen offered her opinion about the idea of the library being removed from this building. Unconsciously echoing those who sited the library just where it is, she said, “The City Library is a node that links North and South. There is an incredible flow and life in Stadsparken. What would be the consequences for those living in the South and for the cultural development in the South if it became an art hall there instead?”
At least for now, the building is very well-used — perhaps too well-used. But this handsome building with its wonderful tapestries offers the public a great example of mid-century aesthetics: distinctive and thoughtfully-designed spaces which promote communal social interaction, enhanced by superb hand-crafted art which brightens the spirit. It is still a winning combination.
Author’s visit to library, September, 2018
Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek staff, email exchange with Eva Olow
Instagram, photo from Katsuida account
Kulturemagisinet on Youtube, tapestry cleaning video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tic3NOt0frk&fbclid=IwAR2BfkSJNbq5UVt2Zn7PRaaVcyg6XUPRV74txUqiXm-yoWrAXw-VqENc7Xw from May, 2017.
Michelsen, Jörgen and Sören Sommelius, Återblick; publisher: Helsingborgs Stadsbibliotek, 2005.
Møller, Viggo Steen. En bok om Barbro Nilsson, Bokförlaget Trevi, Stockholm (1977).
Barbro Nilsson facebook page
Sören Sommelius blog on new cultural happenings — https://www.nyakultursoren.se/?cat=4945feed/ article titled, “ Två bibliotek: nytt i Lomma nergånget i Helsingborg, ” 24 mars 2019
http://www.theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com, “Barbro Nilsson’s Energetic River Horses,” 5/28/17.
Torbjörn Svensson, Article in HD newspaper, now called Dygnet Runt (Around the Clock) “S-förslaget om biblioteket till Dunkers får hård kritik” 6 sept 2016, photo Hannah Rahlén. Includes quotation arguing that the library should stay in its current location.