On first glance of Pristina’s public library, one is likely to involuntarily undergo what is known as ‘The Marmite Effect’. You’re either going to love it, or hate it. But as divisive as the structure’s appearance has been both inside and outside its own country, and no matter how many ‘Ugliest Building in the World’ lists it has appeared on, it is one place that truly challenges the old idiom that beauty is only skin deep.
Though it was only officially opened in its current incarnation in 1982, its paper trail dates back more than 70 years to 1944, when Kosovo’s library scene was first establishing its roots. Through triumphs and turmoil, the tomes that exist within the walls have grown in number to a mammoth collection of over 2 million volumes, including journals, magazines, newspapers, photographs, rare manuscripts and a whole host of significant archive documents that hold the state’s history and heritage within their precious pages.
Despite the remarkable treasures it houses, it is the first reactions to its facade that often leave the most lasting impression. With a hulking great concrete base blanketed entirely by something resembling both a metallic fishing net and an impenetrable wire fence, it’s easier to imagine as a purpose built prison rather than a temple to knowledge. It looks rather like a Cubist painting someone forgot was only supposed to exist on a canvas, rather than the reality of three-dimensions.
Several have speculated on the inspirations its designer, Croatian maestro Andrija Mutnjakovic, must have drawn on in its development – everything from local landscapes and traditional Albanian dress to 1960s Modernism and Byzantine religious symbols have been suggested as playing a role – but no matter which theories you subscribe to, the embrace of opposites is most apparent; for this is a building that exists in contrast to itself. Internally it is a thing of beauty, where the refined wood walls and mosaic-tiled interiors are drenched in the natural light streaming in through the 99 white domes – a paradise in which to soak in as many paperbacks as possible. Externally, it is a brutalist monument, weird and harsh and uninviting – the test you have to overcome in order to gain the valuable wisdom that exists inside.
In this respect, the National Library of Kosovo stands as a flawless symbol of its own nation and how it is often seen in the public eye. It is also a constant reminder that, to see real beauty, all we need do is scratch a little below the surface.