Welcome to Utopia
Utopia is not always an imaginary place. That is what Derek Blyth discovered when he entered the stunning city library of Aalst.
The idea of Utopia is rooted in the Low Countries, from the publication of Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia in Leuven to Dutch writer Rutger Bregman’s 2014 bestseller Utopia for Realists.
Utopia, the city library of Aalst © Kaan architecten
The word “Utopia” also appears in large white neon letters above the entrance to Aalst’s stunning city library. The library’s new name reminds locals that local printer Dirk Martens was commissioned to produce the first edition of Utopia.
It’s not just the name that comes from More’s book. A large neon map at the front of the building is based on a woodcut map in Martens’ first edition. And the building is dotted with other reminders of Thomas More’s famous book.
Dirk Martens printed the first edition of Thomas More's Utopia
The building itself seems to have been shaped by ideas of Utopia. Designed by Dutch firm Kaan architecten, it is a striking concrete design with elegant wood bookshelves, illuminated images from Aalst’s history and an airy cafe.
The complex embraces a former 19th-century military cadet school now occupied by a school of performing arts, so you might spot a student playing a violin or a dance performance in a rehearsal space.
Inside the city library of Aalst © Kaan architecten
The new library is part of a trend in the Low Countries where libraries are being reinvented for the digital age. As well as Aalst, there are impressive new libraries in Groningen, Mechelen, Utrecht and Ghent. These reinvented public spaces have extended their activities beyond lending books to create vibrant urban hotspots. In Aalst’s Utopia, people can learn music, organise a meeting, play board games or listen to a music critic play their favourite vinyl records.
‘It has become the city’s living room,’ said Utopia director Arnoud Van der Straeten in an interview with Dutch newspaper NRC. He noted that some 10,000 people had joined the library since it reopened, representing ten times the normal rate.
© Kaan architecten
‘I’ve worked for 20 years in the cultural sector, but the library is now the most innovative, relevant and challenging institution around,’ said Van der Straeten.
You might almost say it is Utopia.