In the last 2 months of 2013, the Durban Municipality went out to tender for the architectural team for a new Durban City Central Library to be positioned on the Centrum site just west from the Durban ICC and tall Hilton Hotel. It is at present, and has been for at least 20 years, an open site, used for parking and car boot sales. There is an accessible pedestrian route running north/south from the City Engineers building into the CBD. It is conveniently linked in both directions with other central activities.

I joined a team of architects, to submit a tender, so I was able to get to know the brief intimately.

A library: has this relevance today? Is it still a repository for books? The library I remember from schooldays was definitely a quiet and intimidating place.

Recently when I studied in the UK, the library was definitely still the center of a lot of activity on the campus, offering books as well as computers as sources of information. We had fun thrashing this all out, and tried to imagine what the use of it will be in 50 years time?

There will definitely be a children’s area, with a small auditorium for speakers and other meeting rooms. However, one of the strangest requirements was a separate library for the visually impaired that was to be combined with those people who are unable to hand hold books. In another schedule of accommodation, the special collections (rare books, maps, government law reports, etc.) require wheelchair accessible workspaces.

There is a general item included in a section, mentioning “robust finishes” asking for universal access. The library “must exceed the minimum requirements for ensuring universal access and [cater] for special needs” e.g. library for the visually impaired. I suppose the library for the visually impaired will mean there will be computers with the software usually used by visually impaired people to read books, so it will be noisy. There will also be music and electronic media areas with listening booths etc., which require acoustic treatment, though these modifications are not mentioned for the library for the visually impaired.

I am very disappointed with all that. I can’t believe that the brief writers have so little sense of what universal design is, and also have no idea of what an integrated society is. Couldn’t the special needs of people who can’t hand hold books be integrated with able bodied people and the visually impaired people integrated with the music listeners and the game players?

It has not yet been decided who will be doing the design, and it was advertised both nationally and abroad. Let’s hope the successful group will have a better understanding of how a desegregated society should function.

As F Scott Peck said in The Different Drum:

“Community is and must be inclusive. The great enemy of community is exclusivity. Groups that exclude others are not communities; they are cliques-actual defensive bastions against community.