National Library to undergo long-awaited refurbishment

Full internal refurbishment is in the works for the National Library, following Education Minister Petros Efthymiou’s decision to turn it into the Historical Library. The year 1903, when the library was installed in the Doric-style building of Theophilus Hansen and Ernst Ziller, saw the happy ending to a long process that started in 1832 of moving next to, then cohabiting with, Athens University. Now, 100 years on, the library – which eventually came to suffer from insufficient book space and a lack of modern infrastructure – is to get a complete makeover that will harmoniously complete Hansen’s renowned Athenian trilogy. Making use of his right to directly allocate a project costing up to a certain sum, the minister chose as the architect Constantinos P. Staikos, a specialist in interior architecture and library historian. Staikos prepared the preliminary study, and his proposal for the full restoration and sensitive modernization that the building was in need of has been accepted unanimously by the ministry and the library’s departments and management. Kathimerini sought out the plans that will gel into the final design, and found the fine neoclassical taste of the 1900 Athenian school. Staikos has a passionate interest in the historical origins of libraries. Just a few months ago, his book «The Great Libraries: From Antiquity to the Renaissance» was published by the British Library in the UK and Oak Knoll Press in the USA to general acclaim. «The thing is to offer a realistic solution to the question of how to intervene in a building that is a monument,» Staikos told Kathimerini. Employing «surgical procedures,» his proposal invisibly introduces modern technology while highlighting and complementing the neoclassical style in converting the saturated National Library into the Historical Library. The neoclassical building will house volumes, codices and manuscripts dating up to around 1800. Events will be organized at the library to liven up the building and connect it to the social life of the city. Of course, this means that the major issue of a National Library of Greece has been put on hold until there is sufficient political will to erect a new building worthy of the purpose. A valuable array of historical Greek publications will be enshrined in the building on the corner of Panepistimiou and Ippocratous streets. And of course, the new Historical Library will have to prove how well it can incorporate the newest and best the 21st century can offer into the microclimate of Athenian neoclassicism. A living organism Staikos is a specialist at recreating this environment, which he treats as a living organism, rather than a workshop. Damage that has been caused by inept work done in recent decades will be repaired and things that do not belong will be removed. The building will present a profile that is both classical and modern. It will be Athens’s contribution to international thinking about integrating buildings in historical styles into a high-tech world. The improvements Staikos’s proposal is in four parts. 1. Substantial work on the building: The most substantial work is planned for the Modern Philology wing with the high windows overlooking Ippocratous Street. The height will be exploited to create two levels, the first of which is to be a special section for manuscripts, and the second a multipurpose hall for exhibitions, screening and other events for audiences of up to 180 people. All the decoration and murals will be restored and added to, if necessary, in the same style. 2. Reshaping: The area below the Reading Room will be reshaped so as to meet the library’s basic requirements for storage and bookshelves. Secretarial and accounts offices and a canteen will run along an internal corridor overlooking the atria. 3. General refurbishment: The long-suffering building will get a new shine with the replacement of electrical wiring, new lighting, and restoration of the decor throughout, from the entrance to the Reading Room and offices. 4. Atria and gardens: The National Library’s four atria will be upgraded and planted, providing beautiful skylit areas for the staff. Transparent glass will replace opaque panes, dramatically changing the feeling indoors. A new protective external wall will be built for the uncovered areas, and an underground area will link the main building to a hatch for all essential pipes and cables. New landscape gardening and an airy wooden refreshment kiosk decorated with metal trimmings will provide a new look outside. Entering a new era One of the few public buildings in Athens of such architectural and aesthetic value, the National Library, a continuation of the university and the Academy, will enter the new era in a manner worthy of its history and style, in this experiment on the passage from the 19th to the 21st century. Given the dearth of monumental architecture in Athens, it will upgrade the center and help retain an air of taste that Athens needs if it is to attract more such investments.