Furnishing a City Library: Barbro Nilsson

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.

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Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), north entry facade, Jörgen Michelsen, architect, 1965; Helsingborg. Sweden


2. Stadsbiblioteket,_Helsingborg_from Wikpedia
Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), east facade, Jörgen Michelsen, architect, 1965; Helsingborg. Sweden. Wikipedia photo.
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Jörgen Michelsen, architect. Photo from book, Återblick (“ Looking Back”) about design of the library.

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.

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Helsingborgs Stads Bibliotek (City Library), view into main reading room from ground floor.

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

Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), First Floor Plan, reproduced from Återblick. Entry at the center bottom of the drawing, central walkway as building spine.
Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), Second Floor Plan, reproduced from Återblick. Auditorium sits over entrance.
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Diagramatic sketch plan, illustrating relationship between two vertical open spaces and brick and glass walls of the building.

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.

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Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), photo of original atrium from book titled Återblick.
6c. Katsuida on instagram Helsingborg lib. Screen Shot 2019-11-18 at 10.30.17 PM
Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), photo of current atrium roof from Katsuida account, Instagram.

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.

7. Helsingborg library interior photo from hd.se foto Hannah Rahlén
Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), photo of main reading room alcoves. Photo by Hannah Rahlén, September, 2016.
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Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), photo of one of main reading room alcoves. Note texture of painted brick walls.

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.

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Barbro Nilsson, Solvägen (Path of the Sun) gobelin tapestry on south wall of main reading room of Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), signed AB MMR and BN.
9. barbro3 photo by son Pal-Nils Nilsson for Viggo Steen Moller En bok om BN 1977 copy
Barbro Nilsson in her studio in Lerberget in 1964, with enormous study for a tapestry, one of the ones which was both precurser to the Solvägen tapestry for the Helsingborg City Library of 1965, and to the series of Sydkraft tapestries in 1966. Photographed by Barbro Nilsson’s son, Pål-Nils Nilsson. From En bok om Barbro Nilsson.
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Barbro Nilsson, gobelin tapestry titled Atomkraftverk, representing nuclear power, designed for Sydkraft, 1966. Photo from blog post on these tapestries.
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Barbro Nilsson, detail of Solvägen (Path of the Sun) tapestry in main reading room of Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), signed AB MMR and BN.
12. BN EON tapestry detail IMG_4605 copy
Barbron Nilsson, detail of gobelin tapestry titled Atomkraftverk representing nuclear power designed for Sydkraft, 1966.  This is a little richer than the library tapestry due to the use of gold and metallic threads and a greater number of figures.

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.

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Enlargement of plan of second floor of main reading room in Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), marked to show locations of Barbro Nilsson’s tapestries, plan reproduced from Åfterblick. Solvägen is to upper right (south) and Blåsväder is to lower left (north).
Barbro Nilsson, view of Blåsväder (Windy Weather) tapestry on north wall of in triple height main reading room of Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), looking across light well; woven 1967 and signed AB MMF and BN.
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Barbro Nilsson, Blåsväder (Windy Weather) tapestry in main reading room of Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), hung over door into adjacent one-story reading room woven 1967 and signed AB MMF and BN.

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.

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Barbro Nilsson, Blåsväder (Windy Weather) tapestry on north wall of main reading room of Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), signed AB MMR and BN, woven 1967; hung over door into adjacent one-story reading room.
Barbro Nilsson, detail of Blåsväder (Windy Weather) tapestry on north wall of main reading room of Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), signed AB MMR and BN, woven 1967.
Barbro Nilsson, detail of Blåsväder (Windy Weather) tapestry on north wall of main reading room of Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), signed AB MMR and BN, woven 1967.


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Barbro Nilsson, detail of Blåsväder (Windy Weather) tapestry on north wall of main reading room of Helsingborgs stadsbibliotek (City Library), signed AB MMR and BN, woven 1967.

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.



4 thoughts

  1. This is great fun to read, knowing your deep appreciation of libraries, architecture and tapestries! I am especially inspired the by the tapestries’ expression of wind, waves, and sun.


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