Snøhetta, one of the most noted architectural practices in the world, has designed some of the world’s most noteworthy socio-artistic public projects. Snøhetta’s inception can be dated back to 1989. Since its very commencement, the practice has maintained its original approach, one which is transdisciplinary and integrates art, architecture, landscape, interior, graphic, product, digital design across all of its projects. 

After more than 30 years of practice, Snøhetta has grown to become an internationally recognised practice of architecture and other disciplines, with equal gender distribution and 280 employees of more than thirty different nations. The practice has a global presence, with offices in Oslo, Paris, Innsbruck, New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong, and Adelaide. 

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina by Snøhetta: Library with a View - Sheet1
The Library Reborn _©Gerald Zugmann /https://archello.com/story/38402/attachments/photos-videos/1

Snøhetta’s design approach can be deciphered through an analysis of their very first structure The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria, Egypt. Received as a competition-winning entry, the project construction spanned for 12 years; commissioned in 1989 as a contemporary regeneration of the legendary Library at Alexandria, a city deified throughout the ancient world at one point of time; and ending in 2001. The design was worked on in collaboration with the Clientele Ministry of Education, Egypt; and the respective Local Architect Hamza Associates. 

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina by Snøhetta: Library with a View - Sheet2
The Stairway to Knowledge _©Gerald Zugmann /https://archello.com/story/38402/attachments/photos-videos/4?fullscreen=1

The overall Design Philosophy 

First proposed by Mostafa El-Abbadi, a professor at Alexandria University in 1972, the idea of reviving the ancient library was approved and supported by the Egyptian government. The idea entered multinational hype, support and recognition through UNESCO, and the site named was adjoining Alexandria University, near the venue of the ancient library. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina was designed as a research foundation in Alexandria, Egypt, and took its design inspiration from the classical times’ Library of Alexandria. 

Created as a state-of-the-art establishment with an undecided architectural identity, the intention behind it was to serve as a city’s connection to history and heritage. Its stark antiquity and technological innovations made it unquestionably more forward-looking than historically referential, a worldly exploration of form and engineering, inclining towards a stronger sense of local belonging. 

Planning 

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is erected on a site alongside Alexandria’s ancient harbour on Egypt’s Mediterranean coastline, the town’s historic centre. With a total built-up area of 85,000 square meters, the 11- story library has an overall height of forty-three meters, creating enough storage to hold up to 4 million volumes of books, with the potential of expanding up to 8 million via the use of compact storage. Laid out on seven overhanging levels, the collection is shelved in a way, so that the book and manuscript depositories, neatly occupy the spaces below the reading room and the oldest materials occupy the lowest level, forming an extended foundation for later works. The categories of platforms are suggestive of the trays of Harvard’s Gund Hall, overlying one another in an endless stretch of transversely vectored space. Thereby becoming conceivably one of the largest libraries in Africa by area. 

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina by Snøhetta: Library with a View - Sheet3
The Reading Room _©https://snohetta.com/projects/5-bibliotheca-alexandrina

The 20,000 m2 open reading room, large enough to accommodate some two thousand visitors and readers, is the largest of its kind worldwide, occupying more than half of the library volume and stepped over seven terraces. Indirectly lit by perpendicular, north-facing skylights in the roof, the spacious room isn’t exposed to direct sunlight as it’s damaging to books and manuscripts. The terraced reading room design reduces book retrieval time enormously, compared to traditional library planning employed in numerous new completed projects. 

Along with the library facilities, the Bibliotheca also consists of other socio-cultural and educational programs including a planetarium, several museums, permanent displays on Egyptian politics erstwhile and present, an academy for information science plus a library, establishments for the digital preservation of rare books plus manuscripts and conservation complexes. A Young Person’s Library is provided as well for younger pupils and visitants, a new conference centre is linked to an existing auditorium on the site, making the Library an epicentre for knowledge and debate alike. 

Design & Style 

The structure is characterized by a circular, inclining form, a disc-shaped volume, a massive cylinder arising from the ground at a steep angle of about 130 feet (40 metres) from the Mediterranean Sea, and measuring 160 meters in diameter. The curving, monolithic profile on the southern side, dramatically soar 32 meters in height above the plaza without exposing anything of the structure’s overall form to the city behind it, and diving 12 meters into the ground, tilted forwards toward the water in the shape of a wedge. 

The precisely designed ground scape constitutes an extensive open plaza and reflecting pool around the exterior, a buffer between the library and the chaotic setting of urban Alexandria, adjoining to a footbridge that links the University of Alexandria nearby with the town. Dipping below the water table created by the pool, the entire library volume seems to pivot atop the surface of the Earth, an effect emphasized by the angled pitch of the granite-clad walls. 

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina by Snøhetta: Library with a View - Sheet4
_The Reading Room _©https://wallpaperbat.com/alexandria-egypt-wallpapers

Reading areas and stacks are arranged at proximity at the same level, the stacks being placed at each terrace level, underneath the succeeding higher terrace. This aids the readers who are sitting at the terrace edge, enjoy maximum exposure to natural light and grand views of the space while being close to the associated book storage area. A repeated conception throughout the room creates a large amphitheatre with a variety of uniformly lit reading complexes. It’s in this reading room, that the architecture most glorifies the acts of learning and literacy.

Concept

Designed as a rejuvenation of the ancient library within the city founded 2300 years ago by Alexander the Great, and lost to civilization centuries thereafter; the new Alexandria Library is a contemporary design that attempts to contribute meaningfully to students, researchers and the general people. The architects intended for the Bibliotheca to be both eternal and bold, with the pure form of the circular plan showcasing a reminiscence to the cyclical character of knowledge, fluid throughout time and to reflect the circuitous layout of the Alexandrian harbour, a reference that implies an authentic appeal to a timeless, versatile, and conceivably archetypal form, both reminiscent and stimulating in its modesty.

The exterior stone wall is inspired, among numerous ideas, by geologic configurations, resemblant to those found along the Nile. The varying stone dimensions define layers of history unveiled by corrosion. The geologic ambience illuminates the energy of the roof being lifted from the ground, pulling the ground along as it rotated.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina by Snøhetta: Library with a View - Sheet5
Initial Concept Sketches of the Library _©https://snohetta.com/projects/5-bibliotheca-alexandrina

The disk-shaped roof is suggestive of the sun rising over the Mediterranean, and the roof pattern consisting of aluminium and glass panels that mirror a microchip, its glittering, slanting form recalls the ancient Alexandrian lighthouse and provides the town with a symbol denotative of erudition and culture, and in this, it succeeds between its massive size and its striking, clean profile. The Library exerts a commanding, primaeval sight over the harbour town. As it descends into the earth and reaches overhead to the sky the library manifests within its apparent movement a frozen moment in time. Synchronic with this movement stands a grand stone edifice of monumental proportions.

Materials

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina by Snøhetta: Library with a View - Sheet6
Carving Out _©https://snohetta.com/projects/5-bibliotheca-alexandrina

Consisting of two walls, one above and one below ground, nearly 6,000 square meters of hand-sculpted stone, and about 6,400 Egyptian granite monoliths up to 2 meters high, the outer facade represents one of the largest contemporary sculptural edifices in the world; made possible by the collaboration between Norwegian and Egyptian specialists and craftsmen during the planning process.

Below the sloping crystalline canopy, in the inside of the building lies the great reading space — the crown gem of the library — bringing the size and nobility of the design into a single view. Soaring columns lift the ceiling-high into the air, recalling Wright’s Johnson Wax Building and the dramatic, blazing supports of Labrouste’s Bibliotheque Nacionale. It’s in this spectacular hall alone, the edifice is recognized as a library, functionally and genealogically bound to a typological model well established in the architectural convention.

Basking in the long-winded northern sun pouring through the roof, the warmth of the natural wood finishes and the staggered floor arrangement brings about thrilling Bachelardian moments of space that lounge the diametric of the inward and the immense. High textured wall finishes, precise structural articulations, and an innovative skylight system with the sculptural playfulness of a Miralles window sequence break down the large room further into a delicate interplay of details on an appreciably mortal scale.

Construction & Technology used

Construction of the$ 200 million structure was completed in 2001, and the complex officially opened on October 16, 2002. The voluminous monolithic stone elements that comprise the external wall of the library are mounted along a curving and increasingly sloping cast-in-place concrete load-bearing wall. The bend that the wall follows is not even across its length and varies from erect to circa 8 degrees from perpendicular.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina by Snøhetta: Library with a View - Sheet7
Entrance lobby of the Bibliotheca_©Christian RICHTERS/ https://www.akdn.org/architecture/project/bibliotheca-alexandrina

The roughly 900-kilo stones are supported by the use of stainless steel brackets connecting the stone to the concrete. A slip joint is added to the brackets designed, to permit movement. Much of the stone nevertheless acts as a loadbearing material where the stones at the top place some of their weight on the stones below. The stones were laid along a series of triangles along the wall to reduce failure within the surface before all of the stones were appropriately fitted. The concrete wall behind is leakproof and air and rain move freely behind the revetment blocks. A limiting block and base element are used to finish the wall at the top and bottom.

Innovative and Inspirational Elements 

As a homage to history and tradition, one of the exterior walls of the structure is carved with alphabetic epitaphs from throughout the world in a careful display of the library’s essential proviso and a cultural celebration of the smallest component of the library’s content, language and the letter; sculpted with a series of texts in languages both current and defunct, bearing glyphs from all the known alphabets and hieroglyphics, a canvas of letters and signs without a precise statement, along with musical and mathematical notation, and Braille and bar- codes mixed with familiar epitaphs. The wall displays the majority of the world’s specified systems of writing, covering generations of history, and alluding to the library’s worldliness. The letters and signs stand upon the wall, not organized as in books inside the edifice, but as a work of art in contrasting sizes and intensities. The specific calibres of each inscription, consequently, deliver an overall aesthetic beauty and sensibility. 

A stark distinctness exists between the elevated views and the in-vivo experience; that’s essential to the comprehensibility of the library. What would appear from images and models to be monolithic and bulky, is far from the in-person experience on the ground plane. Complexity is contributed at the human scale through structural and material details, incisions into the roundabout shape, and an elaborate interior program contoured to the dramatic inclination of the roof. 

The Microchip Roof that provides with the indirect lighting. _©Christian RICHTERS/ https://www.akdn.org/architecture/project/bibliotheca-alexandrina

The new library’s design has employed the most up-to-date engineering results and includes one of the world’s most distinguished foundation and structural designs. Its interiors are precisely designed for the comfort of the user during all seasons. State of the art solutions has been employed to alleviate the effects of natural disasters like as earthquake and fire, while the structure is also augmented by up-to-date digital information installations. 

The interplay of multi-directional curves and crossing planes give the library an energetic dynamism, particularly from the exterior approach. In an age in which structures are too oftentimes intended to express themselves best through portrayals, the Bibliotheca provides Alexandria with welcome relief a library designed for consumption through physical occupation rather than through simulacra (despite the possibility of it being a simply generous reading of a structure that has a simply clumsy conception in any other medium). 

In Conclusion 

A revivification of the legendary ancient library constructed in classical Greek times, the reconstruction of the library returned Alexandria to its former status as a centre for exchange and education, with the library’s design drawing worldwide praise. Snohetta and Hamza Associates’ collaboration gave the city a landmark structure, and the spirit of foreign cooperation that conceived, funded, designed and enforced the library, has been maintained in its administration to induce an institution that has a global outlook. 

While the structure is technically great, the architectural language used gives the correct balance between ancient techniques, vernacular material and contemporary design approach. The structure is the first ground plan by one of the world’s most renowned architectural associations and will be a key project for all the stakeholders involved in its stuff, and its use. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina has the potential to be the catalyst for coming developments in the historic city centre. With signs already underway, the Bibliotheca is intended to revitalize the town and the region as a new centre for erudition and culture, a place of both pilgrimage and long-term viability.

References

O’Neal, Jeff. Bibliotheca Alexandrina: The Great Library of Alexandria Reborn Bookriot. Retrieved 23 January 2015 from http://bookriot.com/2013/03/27/bibliotheca-alexandrina-the-great-library-of-alexandria-reborn/.

Snohetta (2003). Bibliotheca Alexandrina. [online]. (Last updated 23 January 2015). Available at https://snohetta.com/projects/5-bibliotheca-alexandrina [Accessed 05 October 2021].

Aga Khan Award For Architecture (2004). Bibliotheca Alexandrina. [online]. (Last updated 2020). Available at https://www.akdn.org/architecture/project/bibliotheca-alexandrina [Accessed 05 October 2021].

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2008). Bibliotheca Alexandrina. [online]. (Last updated 19 September 2019). Available at https://www.britannica.com/topic/Bibliotheca-Alexandrina-research-institution-Alexandria-Egypt [Accessed 05 October 2021].

David Langdon; ArchDaily (2015). AD Classics: Bibliotheca Alexandrina / Snøhetta. [online]. (Last updated 3 February 2015). Available at https://www.archdaily.com/592824/ad-classics-bibliotheca-alexandrina-snohetta [Accessed 05 October 2021].

Archello (2015). Bibliotheca Alexandrina. [online]. (Last updated 3 February 2015). Available at https://archello.com/project/bibliotheca-alexandrina [Accessed 05 October 2021].

Author

A final year architecture student, currently studying in SVKM-NMIMS Balwant Sheth School of Architecture, Mumbai, he has allied interests towards architectural photography and writing. Having a penchant for films and philosophy as well, he is of the belief that architecture and design have the ability to capture the most pivotal moments in life itself.

Write A Comment