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Spanish design duo reveal secrets behind award-winning Barcelona library

Gabriel García Márquez Library in Barcelona, Spain.
Gabriel García Márquez Library in Barcelona, Spain. Copyright Jesus Granada
Copyright Jesus Granada
By Graham Keeley
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If the couple's mission was to make reading relevant again then this is a total triumph. A long queue of people regularly wait to get inside the Barcelona library, in scenes more reminiscent of a concert than a reading room in a quiet area of the city.

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The Gabriel García Márquez Library is no ordinary library. From the outside it looks like a huge, white stack of books and that is precisely the idea at the self-styled ‘Cathedral of books.’

Inside, the red spruce finish throughout gives it a clean, airy, feel which helps make it seem like a pleasant place to enjoy books.

On the fourth floor, a huge window opens to reveal a large wall of vegetation outside. One woman is sprawled in a hammock enjoying a book, while a child is lolling in a big round straw seat, engrossed in a picture book. It more resembles a beach scene in a holiday resort, than a library.

Architects Elena Orte and Guillermo Sevillano won the 2024 EU Prize for Contemporary Emerging Architecture – Mies van der Rohe Award for this design.

Inside the Gabriel García Márquez library in Barcelona
Inside the Gabriel García Márquez library in BarcelonaJesus Granada/SUMA Arquitectura
Inside the Gabriel García Márquez library
Inside the Gabriel García Márquez libraryJesus Granada/SUMA Arquitectura

Urban renewal

The building is situated in Sant Marti neighbourhood, a poor inner-city area of Barcelona, and is proving popular with locals.

When they won the commission, the pair were asked to make reading relevant again for the local people.

Judging by the popularity of the place, they seem to have succeeded.

On the day when I met the couple, who live in Madrid and run SUMA Architectura, the library was packed.

But it was not just students finishing their homework who filled the place. Middle aged women, children and other younger people were dotted around the library. A visiting group of Chilean sailors were taking a guided tour.

In 2022, the building was voted the best new library in the world by the World Congress of Libraries, just one of the many awards which the innovative design has received.

Elena and Guillermo greet me in a room in the basement reserved for Radio Maconda, the Barcelona library's radio service. It is here that local people can come and make podcasts.

Another aspect of the library which is unusual but also popular is the community kitchen.

“The library resembles a pile of stacked books but the challenge for us was to redefine the role of libraries in the 21st century,” Guillermo tells Euronews Culture.

“For us the response to that problem was that the library should offer a whole system of ecosystems to the user. The architecture, the staff and the users could act as a cohesive ecosystem bringing everything together in the most cohesive fashion possible.”

Married with two children, they won the contract to design the library in 2015 and have measured their progress by the lives of their own offspring as their second child was born the same year.

The pandemic held up work and it was finally opened in 2022.

“The radio station is popular for Radio Maconda and for podcasts for local people who want to use it,” said Elena.

She says that the investigation looked at how different groups read books. Children, for instance, might like to relax while reading, while adults normally sit up.

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“Each person can find their own corner in terms of their own necessities. There are areas with more bubbles (for individuals) and there are other areas where you can work in groups,” she says.

“The bean bags are for teenagers which often find it hard to find spaces in libraries to adapt to their needs and their groups, so this is a space which is popular.”

Reading revolution

Walk around the library and there are areas for individuals protected by white curtains, by contrast, other communal areas have desks where every place is full.
Walk around the library and there are areas for individuals protected by white curtains, by contrast, other communal areas have desks where every place is full.Jesus Granada/Suma Arquitectura

Guillermo said the area next to the children’s section, had a kiosk with newspapers and comics including those Mortadelo y Filemon, two famous characters dreamed up by the late Francisco Ibañez, who died last year.

Ibañez, the writer of comics which an entire generation of Spaniards grew up with, attended the library’s opening.

The architects spent time speaking with locals during its building.

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“People spend a lot of time in the library. They don’t just come in and get a book. They feel more comfortable here than at home,” Elena said.

“That is the real idea of the palace of the people,” Guillermo added.

Enchanted Wood

Other areas of the library allow visitors to read and relax while others allow people to recover from exercising
Other areas of the library allow visitors to read and relax while others allow people to recover from exercisingJesus Granada/SUMA Arquitectura

Introducing nature into the library was important for the architects.

Not only is the principal material red spruce, but large windows outside the library reveal great expanses of vegetation.

“The vegetation gives you the sensation of isolation because it is a very dense neighbourhood,” Elena said.

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“The name of the area is the Enchanted Wood.”

On the third floor, people can read and use exercise bikes to keep fit as well as enjoy the works of García Márquez, Don Quijote or Shakespeare.

The name of Gabriel García Márquez was not decided by the architects but by the local authorities.

The library celebrates Latin American literature as both García Márquez and Gabriel Vargos Llosa, both lived in Barcelona in the 1970s. Both Nobel laureates were close friends until they had a famous falling out when Vargos Llosa punched the Colombian writer in 1976 in Mexico, reputedly over a woman.

“There is a part of the collection dedicated to Latin American journalism and magical realism,” Guillermo explained.

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Both are great fans of the late García Márquez so for their library to be named after a personal hero, adds to the pleasure.

“The prize is a great honour. It has taken great effort but the recognition of the neighbours and the workers, it is a great reward,” Guillermo smiled.

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