The Utrecht Public Library commissioned internationally renowned Dutch artist Maarten Baas to create a large-scale installation to highlight the entrance to the Central Library on Neude Square, Utrecht, The Netherlands.
The former Main Post Office on Neude Square is one of Utrecht's most iconic buildings, a national monument housing the oldest public library in the Netherlands. Completed in 1924 and designed by architect Joseph Crouwel in the style of the Amsterdam School.
Maarten Baas' work, called Intellectual Heritage, extends 9,5 x 8 meters above the main entrance, around an oval stained glass decoration.
It is an unexpected and eccentric intersection of bold 3D architectural signs and LED text displays of different sizes, which mimic advertising messages and are illuminated 24 hours a day, with different intensities throughout the day.
The installation shows words used in the language of literature, culture and philosophy, creating a common frame of reference among the educated, but the visual language used to convey the message is perceived as pop culture: a form of advertising.
Baas has a history of surprising and intriguing audiences.
“Does the installation point to the entrance of a casino in Las Vegas or to the portal of a cultural temple?” asks Baas. “All of my work is open to numerous interpretations, and interpretations can be contradictory in nature.”
Making the library an inclusive space and an attractive resource for the younger generation, while increasing its reach to appeal to demographic audiences, is one of Intellectual Heritage's core messages.
The dilemma between choosing high culture and popular culture references is intelligently addressed by Baas, through an intersection between the two.
The installation displays Latin words as slogans: Lectori Salutem (Greetings Reader), Scientia potentia est (Knowledge is power) mixed with the names of famous authors, from Virginia Woolf to Kafka, one of his favorite writers. She couldn't resist mentioning it, considering the complicated bureaucratic process that made the job possible.
A few Dutch words take center stage: Literatuur (Literature), Poëzie (Poetry) but also Strip, a Dutch word for comics with a very different meaning in English. (The Las Vegas Strip or the neon lights of a red light bar?). Utrecht is a university city, so Baas promotes words like Study, Study, Study or Silence, two of the main student activities. However, the expressive lettering promotes energy and noise rather than concentration and silence.
The three programmable LED displays, change the text periodically, showing the same contrast between high and low culture. One of them is a famous poem from Utrecht, the second is a digital list of important authors and Nobel prize winners for literature, while in the third we recognize popular songs and slogans from the city of Utrecht.
Baas's practice often contains elements of disruption and unpredictability, and his work can be provocative and controversial; but the provocation comes with a smile, with a twist or an unexpected joke.
Public libraries are valued as trusted spaces, open to all, but they also face many challenges to their resilience and sustainability, including technological advances that influence how people want to connect with information and culture. Digital technology will continue to have a significant impact on how we obtain and consume information, and people will expect even more interactive experiences that extend beyond the building itself.
Baas' sobering piece has the ability to extend a public library's message beyond its walls, addressing the blending of the physical and digital dimensions of modern life.
The project is an expression of love and respect for the cultural function of a public library and for the city of Utrecht, aiming to energize the urban landscape and instill a sense of positivity and pride in the local community.
Designed to be accessible and inclusive, the installation has something for everyone, including children, who will recognize the familiar animated illustrations of the beloved character Nijntje (Miffy), the iconic bunny created by Utrecht-based artist Dick Bruna.
From Sartre to Miffy, Intellectual Heritage is exploring new models of communication, inviting a joyful and inclusive form of interaction and bringing people to culture.
Here is the list of words divided by category:
Latin words: Lectori Salutem (Greetings Reader), Scientia potentia est (Knowledge is power), Omnibus (For all), Lexicon (Language). Authors names: Sartre, Woolf, Tsjechov (Chekhov), Kafka, Multatuli. Dutch words: Literatuur (Literature), Poëzie (Poetry), kunst & cultuur (Art and Culture), Strip!, NU! – U, Nu (You, Now) is the shortest poem in Dutch by Joost van den Vondel, Boeken Boeken Boeken (Books Books Books or to book), Bibliotheek (Library). English words: Study Study Study, Library, Silence, M (Letter with four legs to say “I am”).
Images: Neude Library logo, treble clef, Nijntje (Miffy), open book, arrows (six of different colours), star.
Project name: intellectual heritage
Location: Utrecht Central Library (Netherlands) – Neude 11, 3512 AE Utrecht
Design: Maarten Baas www.maartenbaas.com
Client: Utrecht Public Library www.bibliotheekutrecht.nl
Completion dates: March 2023
Contractor: 3-tac creative signing (Oss, Netherlands)
Materials & dimensions: mixed media, 9.50mx 8.00mx 2.50m
Photographers: ©Maarten Noordijk