St Andrews School for Girls in Bedfordview, Johannesburg, is 117 years old. With history like that comes a responsibility to honour the past, while keeping up with changing times. The school recently undertook a bold renovation of their library, enlisting the talents of rising brother and sister duo Joanne and Peter Valasis of Atmos Architecture & Design, whose work on Mythos restaurant in Rosebank was featured here.

More than a mere facelift, the school was looking to revise the way the library functioned to keep up with technological advancements and methods of learning that have evolved since the days of silent reading at one’s desk.

Lighting overhead mimics the curves in the amphiteatre below and also does away with hard lines.
Lighting overhead mimics the curves in the amphiteatre below and also does away with hard lines.
Image: Alexi Portokallis

“The library was previously more of a traditional space, with rows of library shelves filled with books that the students were not using. It was a little dated in its colours and materiality and functioned as a quiet space aimed at individual study, rather than communal engagement,” Joanne Valasis reflects. To tackle the challenge, the pair applied a two-prong approach.

Functionality was first on that list. The requirements of pupils today are vastly different from what they once were. New spatial planning was applied to the layout of the original library and focused on greater flexibility to accommodate the pupils’ changing needs.

“The space was designed to allow the students to feel comfortable, to study alone or spill off into smalls groups, and to accommodate classes or book launches when needed,” Valasis explains. As a result, the space includes a computer area, various furniture options from beanbags to communal desks, as well as an amphitheatre. The lighting has been designed accordingly, with as much flexibility as the layout.

The second prong was the library’s visual identity. “In order to keep both the identity of the original school library, and represent its new functionality, we chose to elevate the bookshelf, making it the hero of the space,” Valasis says. An open timber shelf has been designed to replace all internal walls (allowing for flexibility) and divide the more relaxed side of the space from the classroom and computer zone. Within this, the team designed cosy, upholstered nooks where the girls can read in comfort.

The new bookshelf acts as a divider, sectioning off the more chilled side of the library from the classroom and computer side behind it. Cosy reading nooks have been recessed into the shelf.
The new bookshelf acts as a divider, sectioning off the more chilled side of the library from the classroom and computer side behind it. Cosy reading nooks have been recessed into the shelf.
Image: Alexi Portokallis

As you enter the library, the first thing you see is a central bookshelf that hangs from the ceiling, a beautiful and fun ode to the book.  

The look and feel of the library has been transformed from its previous dark vibes to a space that’s light and unintimidating. This is down to the colour choice: a soft, feminine shade of pink, in keeping with the times, as well as the white floors and the use of pale wood in the shelving.

An informal seating area with a cheeky pink sofa encourages exchange and conversation in comfort.
An informal seating area with a cheeky pink sofa encourages exchange and conversation in comfort.
Image: Alexi Portokallis

“We were trying to create a space that was more inviting and relevant to the modern student, a new way of engaging with books and technology,” Valasis adds.

This was once my school and my library and the gorgeous new face of the space has me thinking I’d rather be there than here in my office, adulting.

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