Jan Kaplický’s unbuilt library for the Prague Letná site had the potential to be a domestic automation pioneer, as the architect planned to use an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS).

It’s unusual for an architect to ignite such a passionate debate between professionals and the lay public as was the case with the design for the new national library by Jan Kaplický and his Future Systems studio. The library that emerged from the international architectural competition announced in 2006 was to have been built on the Letná Plain, and soon was referred to exclusively as the octopus or the blob.

Dispute over the basement

The unconventional organic appearance of the green-yellow-white building with violet spots and a window resembling an eye would probably stir controversy even elsewhere, not just in Prague, which has a rather restrained relationship with progressive architecture. However, the discussion wasn’t limited just to the building’s appearance and site, but also to the way rare books would be handled in the library.

Kaplický did not comply with the requirement that ‘the core of the rare book collection not be stored on underground floors or on the highest floor of the building’. Nevertheless, he managed to sell the jury on his underground automated archives, which could be hermetically sealed in case of need. Kaplický’s design utilised an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS or AS/RS).

Automation for bicycles and books

is a complex computerised system for the automatic storage and searching of items in defined storage spaces with roots stretching back to corporations in the 1950s and 1960s. A sophisticated system that can be described in simple terms as an automated, operator-free warehouse is used today in factories, distribution centres, in retail and in wholesale. A special parking system for bicycles known as the ‘bicycle tree’ is based on ASRS.

The use of ASRS expanded from business into other areas and various institutions such as libraries and archives.The advantages of such a system are evident not only in a library: lower labour costs, more precise records, speed and space savings in storage.

From California to the world

A library pioneer in automation was Oviatt Library at California State University, Northridge in Los Angeles, where ASRS has been used since 1991. Other libraries have installed these systems since that time. Prague had a chance to join the ranks of these institutions referred to as libraries 2.0 or 3.0.

According to information from the Czech National Library, ASRS technology for libraries has been improved over time.The advantage of this system is retrieval speed and overall savings of space and costs, especially operational expenses. The system can be easily linked with the library system and is intended for 24/7 operation. ‘From the perspective of overall operating costs, libraries that use this system indicate that ASRS is much cheaper to operate than storage equipped with conventional shelving,’ the library reports on its website, adding that manipulation by means of ASRS is also gentler on books.

Global and local players

If we return from libraries to businesses, Amazon is clearly a pioneer in warehouse automation.Large global players and local firms alike utilise ASRS systems.

The first group includes Coca-Cola, which uses ASRS at its warehouses in Wakefield.

And yet, even firms lacking global renown but which rank among leaders on their markets increase their efficiency by means of ASRS. These include the JTM Food Group family company from Ohio and the Australian candy producer Cadbury Schweppes.

Photo: Profimedia

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