Catalonia's biggest library, a new driving force of culture

©Nitidus Arquitectes, SLP

A few months ago, work began on the site next to Estació de França train station where the monumental State Public Library is to be built. Covering 16,000 m2 of usable surface area, it will be the biggest in Catalonia and aspires to become a cultural landmark thanks to a full programme and a collection that should hold 600,000 books. The facility’s opening at the end of 2027 will mark the end of its long journey exceeding three decades and will complete the map of provincial libraries.

Earth moving. Dust. Machinery being pulled over and back. Busy workers and the odd curious onlooker watching them work. Now that work has finally begun on Barcelona’s future State Public Library on the site adjacent to Estació de França, every day that goes by is one day closer to being able to enjoy its facilities, scheduled to open at the end of 2027. The new library will be the city’s biggest public library by far: it will be four times the size of the Jaume Fuster library, which until now had the most generous dimensions (5,636 m2), and its size will be equivalent to the sum of the twenty smallest public libraries in the city (around 20,000 m2).

“At 55 million euros, this is the biggest investment in a public library in the last 125 years,” recalled the Minister for Culture and Sport, Miquel Iceta, at the beginning of last September. This was the date set by the three government authorities involved in the project – the Spanish Government, the Government of Catalonia and Barcelona City Council – to formalise the agreement and mark the beginning of preparations to build “the cornerstone that was missing from the Catalan library network,” as the Catalan Minister for Culture, Natàlia Garriga, stated at the time.

“This library will not only be the one that has cost the most money, but also the largest ever built by the Ministry for Culture and Sports,” adds María José Gálvez, head of the Directorate General for Books and the Promotion of Reading, the body coordinating the project on behalf of the Ministry. “The library will be noteworthy for its adaptation to the urban environment, its energy efficiency, its accessibility and its flexible spaces, which will undoubtedly favour the mobility and autonomy of the more than 10,000 daily users it is expected to have.”

A long and bumpy journey

The ambitious nature of the plan is undeniable. “The Spanish Government is providing the budget, Barcelona City Council is offering the land and the Government of Catalonia will take care of the new library as soon as it is up and running,” explains Josep Vives, Director General for the Promotion of Culture and Libraries at the Government of Catalonia. “The road to getting the project back on track has been a long one. A couple of years ago, the political context in Spain meant that the Government of Catalonia was able to raise unresolved issues again,” Vives continues. “One of them was what was then popularly known as the Provincial Library. Everything that happened before the agreement, which is now a cause for celebration, I will keep for my memoirs.”

©Nitidus Arquitectes, SLP In 2023, Barcelona City Council offered the site next to Estació de França. It was not until 2009 that a public tender was announced, which was won by Nitidus Arquitectes. ©Nitidus Arquitectes, SLP

The plans for Barcelona’s State Public Library began to take shape in 1996, when it was decided that the facility would be built on the site of El Born’s old market. However, following the discovery of archaeological remains in its subsoil and a complicated and bitter debate, in 2002, it was decided that this space would be designated to an interpretation centre dedicated to 1714. A year later, Barcelona City Council offered the site next to Estació de França. It was not until 2009 that a public tender was announced, which was won by Nitidus Arquitectes, a firm run by Josep Maria Miró Gellida.

Work was due to begin in 2011, but the Spanish Government, the Government of Catalonia and Barcelona City Council did not resume negotiations until a decade later, in the midst of which were the most intense years of the procés [Catalonia’s independence process]. During this hiatus – during which the Ministry of Culture proposed, in 2016, to name the future library after the literary agency Carmen Balcells, an idea that was later dismissed – Girona inaugurated the Carles Rahola Public Library in January 2015. It joined the Lleida library (established in 1848 and refurbished in 1998) and the Tarragona library (inaugurated in 1846 and, since 1962, housed in the city’s Casa de Cultura). The only provincial library that remained to be built in Catalonia was still a pipe dream. The State promoted the network of libraries during the first third of the 19th century, which currently comprises 53 libraries. Barcelona, Navarre, Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya are the four provinces that still do not have this cultural facility. Some, on the other hand, have two, such as Asturias, A Coruña, Alicante and Badajoz.

Much more than a district library

Between 1996, when talks began to build the library, and the present day, Barcelona has gradually developed a necessary and extensive network of municipal public libraries. Since 1998, when the plan spearheaded by Ferran Mascarell was launched, there have been 40 public libraries, visited by more than 20,000 users every day and with a total of 4.5 million in loans per year. “That first master plan ultimately ended up having a large-scale roll-out, which is still active,” affirms Ferran Burguillos, manager of the Consortium of Libraries of Barcelona. “The 2022-2030 Library Plan foresees the opening of five more facilities, including the State Public Library in Ciutat Vella, and new centres in districts such as Sarrià-Sant Gervasi, Sants-Montjuïc and Nou Barris. It also envisages the relocation or expansion of seven Barcelona libraries, such as those in Vapor Vell, Gòtic - Andreu Nin and Sofia Barat. In a span of just over thirty years, a great deal of work will have been done. During this time, public libraries have also seen a change of model: they have gone from being spaces of silence to cultural centres, in which the promotion of reading and the educational component are crucial.”

Three decades ago, the State Public Library project was pivotal, but it fizzled out as the challenges of getting it off the ground became more and more visible. “The new facility will arrive in a very different context to the one that was initially planned. At first there was talk of that library as the driving force that would lead the rest,” asserts Jordi Martí, Deputy Mayor for Culture, Education, Science and Community at Barcelona City Council. “It is now being tackled having rolled out the city’s library model, which has been a success for years. This new addition will help to complete the library map of the city and the metropolitan area. As library users, our basic needs as Barcelona residents have been met and, from this point of view, we can affirm that we are a mature city. In the case of the State Public Library, it is a question of achieving excellence.”

“I think that deciding not to build this library in El Born was a major mistake,” claims the cultural journalist and writer Sergio Vila-Sanjuán, who closely followed the debate on whether or not to bring the plans to a standstill in 2002. “The 18th-century remains unearthed there did not prevent the facilities from being built on top, if necessary by leaving them visible, as has been done elsewhere. A great deal of time has been lost. The current project should envisage the State Public Library as much more than a district library. We already have such libraries, and in places with a big population, such as the Gabriel García Márquez library, inaugurated last year in Sant Martí. One doubt I have about the new facility is where it will be located. Estació de França is less central than El Born. Its programme will have to be very appealing to attract the public there. New York and Boston have very active internationally renowned public libraries. The new State Public Library should not waste this opportunity.”

Reflecting Barcelona’s status as a publishing capital

Josep Vives explains that “the space that the State Public Library will occupy will be the equivalent of two buildings like the current Filmoteca de Catalunya. It was really hard to find a space in the city where a facility of this size could be located. The facility’s characteristics,” continues the Government of Catalonia’s General Director of Cultural Promotion and Libraries, “will surpass those of the city’s existing libraries. The primary purpose of this new library will undoubtedly not be that of immediacy,” he adds. “A facility of these characteristics can make an impact on many levels. Barcelona is one of the world’s publishing capitals, which should be reflected in the building. There is also the building’s proximity to the Parliament: it could be used to promote civic actions and citizen participation. Another hot topic that it could address is environmental issues.” Vives also mentions the need to convert the State Public Library “into a showcase for Catalonia’s artistic and technological talent.” He also suggests a possible future synergy with the Mobile World Congress: “Libraries are visited by many people with very different profiles. We would have to see how we can increase the impact of the MWC among citizens, to cite just one example.” If there is a European library that Josep Vives has in mind as a model, it is the magnificent Helsinki Central Library Oodi, inaugurated in 2018. Jordi Martí cites the Amsterdam Public Library, in operation since 2007, which covers an area of 28,500 m2 spread over ten floors. Its collection of 1.7 million books is three times that of the future Barcelona library, which will not be the best stocked: the Biblioteca de Catalunya, created in 1907, has almost 4.5 million documents.

The Director General for Books recalls the importance of “taking young readers into account” and “up-and-coming genres such as comics.” Jordi Martí agrees on the need to visualise “the importance of Barcelona as a publishing capital,” and Ferran Burguillos reminds us that “the city needs a leading library in an iconic space, with innovative projects from a cultural, technological and educational point of view.” The municipal library network has an annual budget of 25 million euros,” he adds. The budget for the State Public Library alone should be between two and three million euros per year.”

A cultural powerhouse

The building designed by Nitidus Arquitectes will comprise three large tiered blocks connected on the inside. Given the proximity of Estació de França station, it comes as no surprise that the structure designed by Nitidus Arquitectes – with one, three and five floors – relates to a locomotive and two carriages. The lowest volume will be the one closest to Avinguda del Marquès de l’Argentera, in an endeavour to keep the station visible. The highest will be the one closest to the sea, on the wide part of the site. The main access will be located at this point.

“We do not want the structures and installations to take centre stage, but rather to make them serve the space,” says Miró Gellida, who has just finished tweaking the project to incorporate “the latest urban planning regulations and some aspects related to uses and functions,” as Ferran Burguillos reminds us. Of the library’s total 21,500 m2, 16,000 m2 will be usable surface area. At maximum capacity, the facility will hold 600,000 books, more than double that of the public libraries in the other three Catalan provinces.

©Nitidus Arquitectes, SLP Since the library will be located between Estació de França station and Passeig de la Circumval·lació, and will not have a square, the architect Josep Maria Miró Gellida wanted to create a public space on the ground floor at the entrance to the library. ©Nitidus Arquitectes, SLP

“In Barcelona we have a very rich publishing heritage that has been maintained over the centuries, but we are currently wasting it,” warns Vila-Sanjuán. “Madrid has been able to promote, through the National Library, a section for the museumisation of books, with papyri, manuscripts, printing presses… All this was Rosa Regàs’ idea, when she was director of the centre. Here the Biblioteca de Catalunya has not quite played its role, although it has received emblematic publishing archives such as those of Plaza & Janés and Gustavo Gili. It is an important place for researchers and scholars, but not for the general public or for students.” Vila-Sanjuán believes that the uses of the new State Public Library need to be envisaged. “At first, it appears that there may be room for everything, but this is never the case,” he says. “It is important to start meeting with professional guilds, brought together in the Cambra del Llibre de Catalunya [Catalonia Book Chamber], and to begin mapping out the library. The question we all have to ask ourselves is: ‘What culture does Barcelona want to express through this library?’ Cities like Madrid and Milan have done their homework before us. Let’s see what we can learn from them. It’s a good opportunity, but I’m not sure where the project will lead.”

“As soon as it opens, the State Public Library will become part of the network of 430 Catalan libraries. It will be a facility equipped with many resources and two conference rooms, the largest of which will seat 300 people and the other 120. They will be used for presentations, conferences, debates, concerts, screenings and all sorts of events. The library should have a huge impact on the city’s cultural life, which will imply repositioning the rest of the facilities,” says Josep Vives. “We have time to finalise its details. For the time being, the important thing is that the whole construction process has begun and there is no turning back. The key to success is that none of the three government authorities involved in the project has taken ownership of it, and that there are very good vibes in the meetings and committees.”

Jordi Martí defines the space as “a CCCB dedicated to books.” He agrees with Vives that the programme “must be very powerful,” and argues that its main focal points “must be literature and the written word,” with “presentations, festivals, congresses and major exhibitions, designed for a mixed public, like those previously dedicated to Franz Kafka and Prague [CCCB, 1999] and to Mercè Rodoreda’s Barcelona [Palau Robert, 2007].” Martí is aware that, from the outset, the location may pose a problem for users. “Anything that takes place in the State Public Library must be appealing enough to attract people from Gràcia, Horta and Nou Barris, but also from Badalona and Cornellà, and even further afield, from Sabadell, Mataró and Terrassa,” he says. “If 90% of local library users come to borrow or return a document, to study or read the newspaper, and 10% attend presentations or workshops, I believe that these percentages will be reversed in the State Public Library.”

Let’s hope that the harmony between the different authorities and the enthusiasm will be sustained until the end of the project and that the long story of the State Public Library will have the best of endings: that, once opened, it integrates seamlessly with the rest of Barcelona’s libraries and ends up being the cornerstone that completes a dense network of facilities dedicated to asserting the value and worth of books in the 21st century.

The newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with Barcelona Metròpolis' new developments