In 1933, seventy year-old Henry van de Velde was commissioned to design a new building for the university library and for the institutes for Art History, Veterinary science and Pharmaceutical science. The appointed site was the former De Vreese Alley or Cité Ouvrière on Ghent's Blandijnberg. The first thing that came to Van de Velde's mind was to store the books in a tower. Situated on the highest ground in the city, the tower would act as a beacon, a symbol of the university, of science, wisdom and knowledge: the Book Tower, Ghent's fourth tower.
This proved more easily said than done. The librarians did not think much of the idea and even commissioned architect Armand Cerulus to make plans for a longitudinal alternative. Headstrong Van de Velde, however, held on to his tower and finally got what he wanted. In 1934 he presented an impressive plaster model of the entire structure. And after countless changes and adjustments, he submitted his final plan in 1935. Construction began the following year.
It took until 1939 for the structural work and part of the finish to be ready. For the final version of his concrete Book Tower, 64 meter high, with four storeys in the basement and twenty above ground level, with an impressive belvedère op top, Van de Velde could count on the knowhow of his colleagues Gustave Magnel, a specialist in reinforced concrete, and Jean-Norbert Cloquet. The choice of concrete was a demonstration of modernity, as was the construction technique: sliding shuttering, which had never been applied in Belgium before.
Henry van de Velde opted for an unusual façade of bare concrete on a plinth with bluestone cladding. He gave the tower the shape of a Greek cross, not as a religious symbol but rather to connect heaven and earth and to merge time and space. The pond in the inner court reflects the tower's basic pattern. Van de Velde's prior concern was the harmony and continuity of the line, allowing both high and low volumes to contribute to an exalted character, so typical for the gothic cathedral. He had the incidence of light determine the position of the reading rooms: the main reading room and the journal reading room face south, receiving zenithal light, whereas the manuscript reading room faces north to be shielded from harmful light.
As an all-round artist, Van de Velde also designed every possible detail for the interior: black iron window profiles, floor patterns, doorknobs, furniture, radiator covers... The economic crisis and the outbreak of World War II, however, stood in the way of completing the project in its entirety: he had to replace certain materials, e.g marble instead of rubber or linoleum for the floors, and the furniture was only partially produced. Of the commissioned works of art, only Karel Aubroeck's and Jozef Cantré's were delivered.
The library building was officially designated a protected monument on July 1st, 1992.
(Een toren voor boeken, 1935-1985: Henry van de Velde en de bouw van de Universiteitsbibliotheek en het Hoger instituut voor kunstgeschiedenis en oudheidkunde te Gent / Beatrix Baillieul, Hilde Ballegeer, Luc Heyvaert, Hendrik Lambotte, Dirk Laporte, Norbert Poulain, Lucienne Zabeau-Van der Verren. (Exhibition October26 - November 24, 1985)