The concrete layer cake of my childhood

Part 1: Lost in Time and Space

It’s 1988. The same year that Seoul had the summer Olympics, Sonny Bono was elected Mayor of Palm Springs, the former Soviet Union was initiating its economic reform (Perestroika) under Mikhail Gorbachev, Sonic Youth’s fifth studio album ‘Daydream Nation’ was released and incidentally also the same year I somehow managed to get myself locked into the Dunedin Public Library for one whole hour.

I shall now inform the reader that this short tale as a whole is indeed ‘factual’ by nature (well mostly let’s say); fragments are inevitably from the dusty recesses shelved (or not shelved as the case may be) within my memory or ambiguously pieced together from forgotten dreams.

To begin the story, it was like any old weekend school trip to the public library. Yes, you heard me… weekend. I was eight years old at the time. It was the same weekend that Margaret Mahy was going to grace us with her presence and read us some stories at the library. As someone who grew up in Dunedin, the curious behemoth of layered concrete known as the Dunedin Public Library (designed by the City Council’s Architectural Division) always had a seemingly omnipresent, yet comforting feel as a ‘civic surveyor’ of the Octagon city-scape.

Ms. Mahy had read us kids a story during which the mid-afternoon light shifted across the surfaces of the room. The light danced across her rainbow wig like a penumbral halo, gifted to us temporarily from the heavens above. From that point on, my memories dim. I vaguely recall people emptying the space around me as unconscious peripheral shadows during which time the teacher had somehow miscounted the head count.

Voices muffled. Daytime faded into early evening. I was lost in my own little world, doodling I suspect. Within moments I found myself alone… alone to explore my ghostly surrounds.

I had always thought of the building as a giant ‘layer cake’, where the spongi-ness was present as concrete. This now reveals my former obsession with dessert treats. I remember various past school trips, trolling through the shelves and finding myself lost within the books. It seemed all too easy to escape into the womb of my imagination by venturing into a window box or simply resting on the warmth of the carpet floor.

The escapism was most definitely the jam filling between the layers of concrete sponge. In a sense, I feel that libraries lead a wonderful double life with their role as public places in the city – as public places they facilitate both collective and personal intimacy as a refuge for the mind and soul.

Alas my hour was soon at an end. The scene was retold as a slightly embarrassed but relieved teacher escorting an eight year old kid out of the building whilst clutching colouring-in books and looking at his shoes the entire time.

For me, the Dunedin Public Library has and always will be about Margaret Mahy’s rainbow wig, colouring-in books, felt-tip pens and that single hour of my life where I thought the world was quite a different place.

Part 2: Stories of Time in Space

An interest of mine is stories of buildings and places. The belief is that both personal and wider social narratives have the possibility to do more for architectural production than one can anticipate or perhaps, to an extent, appreciate. As one important Sociologist Henri Lefebvre, has already mentioned in his book The Production of Space in the most devastatingly succinct manner possible:

“(Social) space is a (social) product”

The simplicity of this statement belies both an intricate and complex set of overlapping relationships concerning the production of space – where everybody produces space – from the personal to the political and the social to the representational. Stories in this sense have the ability to bring the flux of time and thus life into space; ‘the lived experience’ as embodied memories to buildings and places within a phenomenological dimension; i.e. social, cultural, political, historical, mythological and of course personal time.

Acknowledgments and thanks to the staff at the Dunedin Public Library for allowing me to photograph inside.

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