Hong Kong architects make libraries fun for kids, turning Aberdeen’s children’s section into a playground

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  • Many of the city’s public libraries are cramped, boring spaces, so the Leisure and Cultural Services Department asked designers to make them more appealing
  • Every week, Talking Points gives you a worksheet to practise your reading comprehension with questions and exercises about the story we’ve written
SCMP ReporterDoris Wai |
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HIR Studio redesigned the children’s section of Aberdeen Public Library with play in mind. Photo: Handout

What if libraries were fun? That’s the question that came to mind when architects Howard Chung and Irene Cheng were asked to renovate the children’s section of Aberdeen Public Library.

The two architects from HIR Studio were offered this task by Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD). Like many of the city’s libraries, the facility in Aberdeen on the south side of Hong Kong Island was a cramped space lit by fluorescent lights. It is inside a municipal services building, which it shares with a wet market and other community facilities.

“The spaces were boring and a bit dark,” said Chung.

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A quest to make reading spaces more attractive

The LCSD was well aware of these issues. So, nearly three years ago, it invited young designers to come up with ideas to make Hong Kong’s libraries more comfortable and appealing to the public.

Chung said the department knew many Hongkongers preferred bookstores to their local library. The LCSD wanted the facilities to be comfortable, welcoming and valuable to the community.

That was especially true for the children’s section.

“They wanted some more stimulating spaces for the children,” said Chung, adding that the original interior layout did not have space to read.

“It was an old way of organising a library where the bookshelves were on one side, the reading room on the other, and children had to be very quiet.”

Aberdeen Public Library now has a colourful playspace for children to enjoy. Photo: Handout

Designing a library for young children

It was a project that Chung and Cheng were well suited to tackle. They are partners in life as well as in design, and they have three-year-old twin boys. So the parents could put themselves in their sons’ tiny shoes to understand what children would want in a library.

“Of course, when we were designing the library, they were too young to give us feedback,” Cheng laughed.

But the couple conducted workshops and surveys with more than 100 other children. This revealed how kids could be sensitive to design details and patterns that adults might overlook.

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Drawing inspiration from across the globe

That led them to think of the toys developed by Bauhaus designer Alma Siedhoff-Buscher in the 1920s. The toys were made of 22 geometric shapes painted in bright primary colours. These encouraged kids to use their imagination to build any structure they wanted.

Chung and Cheng applied the same philosophy to bookshelves. To make them easy to move, the shelves are mounted on casters, which are small wheels. They are both a playground and a storage space for books.

Some are straight, while others curve to create semi-enclosed reading areas. Kids can pass through tunnels and nestle into whimsical reading nooks like owls in the hollow of a tree.

There is also a wooden central platform with two steps where children and parents can sit and read.

There is plenty of room for reading in any position you find comfortable. Photo: Handout

A multifunctional space for all

This all creates a space that children want to visit. It also helps those who already have to spend time in their local library: in their research, Chung and Cheng found that the library often served as a day care for kids whose parents worked in the wet market next door.

Cheng recalled meeting one girl in Kwun Tong who spent half of her weekend days studying in the library. After finishing her work, she would run around the reading room to play with other kids. “Libraries have to think about how to involve these children,” Cheng said.

Click here for a printable worksheet and interactive exercises about this story.

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