Blending modern design into an orthodox setting
In 2003, a team led by King Roselli Architetti (an English/Italian partnership that quickly was establishing a name for itself) embarked on a challenging, three-year project to expand a university library within The Vatican while adhering to considerable site constraints such as a narrow building corridor and an underground vault full of priceless antiques, artifacts and books. The determined team of international professionals didn’t flinch; instead, they used the constricted job site to their advantage, creating a unique, brick-clad building that is modern in design but timeless in its efficacy.
The team was hired by Pontificial Lateran University Chancellor, Mons. Rino Fisichella, to add new reading rooms to the university’s library as well as restore its auditorium, which basically was modernized with projection facilities, new seating, sound diffusion, and acoustic control. The chancellor’s goal for the library extension was to bring the activity of reading and the consultation of books as the central occupation of the school. Prior to the project’s completion, many of the university’s reading rooms were scattered about several buildings. The library extension not only would bring them together under one roof, but provide plenty of climate-controlled space for the school’s thousands of volumes of texts, including 25,000 antique books. But with limited horizontal space in which to build – the library’s extension was to be placed between a central block of lecture halls – the team needed to build vertically.
Here, too, King Roselli would encounter limitations, as zoning laws kept the structure from rising beyond four stories. However, the team was triumphant in its final design, creating a 2,000-square-meter addition that not only blends with its surroundings in terms of exterior materials, but reveals in its very shape the purpose of the building: the extension’s four floors virtually shift and teeter like a tower of books. Further, the spaces between the floors provide plenty of playful light and shade.
According to King Roselli: “The library is arranged so that for every two floors of book stacks one sloping ramp, ‘U’ shaped in plan, connects them. The book stacks are as low as possible to avoid the use of ladders to reach the highest shelves and, given the thin floor slab, are made to look like a set of bookshelves themselves. They are connected vertically by a staircase set between the containing wall and an interior façade of bookshelves facing the reading ramps dedicated to publications, to form in effect a book tower. The slope of the ramps is determined by joining the regularly spaced floors of the book stacks to the irregular cuts in the façade, which creates the reality [not simply the effect] of volumes floating in light.”
The building’s façade is clad in the same type of handmade brick as the existing structure (built in the 1930s), and is equivalent in proportion and color to the ancient Roman brick still found on many buildings within The Vatican and in surrounding Rome. The building’s cantilevered construction, however, is purposefully and intentionally modern, striking a perfect balance between old and new.
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