Tūranga: What a 21st century library can be


Runtime - 6:01

Showing the world what a library can be

By Sally Blundell for Frank Film

The book lake didn't make the cut, nor did the five-storey slide, but ten years after Cantabrians submitted their ideas for a new public library through the Your Library, Your Voice survey, Tūranga remains an exemplar of what a contemporary library can be.

On a weekday afternoon, readers sit in comfy chairs, children play with Lego or swipe through Christchurch history on the seven-metre Discovery Wall, the New Zealand String Quartet warms up for a performance, a library audio engineer helps a young woman record an audio book, an elderly woman sews a hotty cover, a teenager plays a virtual reality game, researchers bend over archives in the designated quiet space, a corporate group attends a presentation, a mother sits on the floor as her toddler rummages through a box of books.
“We’re from the UK and there’s nothing like this,” she tells Frank Film. “There’s so many facilities for kids and the fact that you can just let the kids play – it’s really lovely here.”

“It’s my favourite building in the city,” says Joseph Hullen (Ngāi Tūāhuriri/Ngāti Hinematua) from the Matapopore Charitable Trust, the mandated voice for manawhenua in the Christchurch rebuild. “There’s not another like it in Aotearoa, probably not another library like it in the world.”

Christchurch’s main public library has had a peripatetic past. In 1859, the Mechanics Institute opened a small subscription library in High Street. A few years later it moved to Cambridge Terrace. In 1982, a new library was built in Gloucester St, a block away from Cathedral Square.

In the 1990s and 2000s there was a massive shift internationally as libraries came to be recognised as community centres and meeting houses, free hubs for homework help, computer classes, craft sessions, ancestry research – or simply a warm place to hang out, access free wifi, get away from noisy flats and, most importantly, stay connected.

“So often I hear the words you don't need a physical library these days,” says Carolyn Robertson, libraries and information manager for the Christchurch City Council. “We’ve got the web, we’ve got everything on the internet. But that need for people to come together – that enables them to just explore and discover and connect with each other, connect with their imaginations, is such a human need.”
The demolition of the Gloucester St building after the earthquake of 2011 presented a rare opportunity to design a library from scratch “and completely re-imagine what a library could be”.
A new public library
in Cathedral Square was one of several anchor projects identified in the Government-led Christchurch Central Recovery Plan but one of the few led by the Christchurch City Council.

The resulting $92 million library, a joint project between Australasian practice Architectus and Danish firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, is a weaving together of community input, modern library practices, and the history and stories of Ngāi Tahu and Ngāi Tūāhuririri. The vertical lines of the exterior screen reference the folded landscape of the Canterbury Plains and the blades of harakeke. Inside, the figure of Tāwhaki, the Māori demigod who famously ascended the heavens to receive the three kete of knowledge, presides over the timber stairwell as a swarm of schoolchildren zigzags up through the building.

“It’s a big achievement to create a big noisy library full of life and events and activity at the same time there are spaces where people can get peace and quiet,” says library manager Chris Hay. “It’s a clever design.”

Tūranga opened on time and on budget on 12 October 2018. In its first year, more than a million visitors spun through its revolving door; in the 2022-23 year, Tūranga had 706,550 visits.

In 2019 the building was awarded the John Scott Award for Public Architecture and was shortlisted for the International Federation of Library Association’s Best Public Library award.

“Everyone’s welcome,” says Hay. “It’s the library of the people of Christchurch.”

Producer/Director/Cameraman/Interviewer: Gerard Smyth
Writer/Researcher: Sally Blundell
Editor: Tracey Jury
Online Editor: Oliver Dawe
Second Camera/Researcher: Ellie Adams
Line Producer: Erina Ellis
Production Manager: Jo Ffitch
Sound Design/Mix: Chris Sinclair

All the staff and visitors at Tūranga
Christchurch City Council for the library opening photos
Christchurch City Library - Historical photos
Southbase Construction for the timelapse footage
New Zealand String Quartet