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Snøhetta Presents a Strong Case for Libraries As 21st Century Hubs of Knowledge and Community in Beijing

 PROJECTS


The Norwegian architecture practice unveils the world's largest climatized reading space at the Beijing City Library, challenging doubts about the relevance of libraries in the digital age and attempting to expand their role beyond "a mere repository of books."


By Jason Santos

19 May 2024


The entrance avenue of the Beijing Central Library designed by Snøhetta, with the heritage Ginkgo trees flanking it | Image by Yumeng Zhu; Courtesy of Snøhetta


Opening its doors to the public earlier this year, the Beijing City Library is part of the local government’s initiative to develop the surrounding region into an art and cultural hub. It serves as a pivotal element in the visionary master plan of the Tongzhou district of Beijing, which aims to ignite inspiration and interaction within the local communities. The project was awarded to the Norway-based global practice Snøhetta in 2018 following an international competition and was completed recently in collaboration with local partner East China Architecture Design and Research Institute (ECADI).


The library opens as the world's largest climatized reading space. Structurally,  the project implements China’s largest load-bearing glass system, with glass being used over large spans of the building’s facade without any structural members to allow for transparency. It also addresses global climate challenges through the incorporation of innovative systems and design elements, which have won it China’s Green Building Evaluation Label (GBEL) Three Star rating, the country’s highest attainable standard for sustainability.


An evening view of the library’s transparent skin which allows users to engage with the outside while reading or working within the library | Image by Yumeng Zhu; Courtesy of Snøhetta


A 21st Century Library

The primary challenge of designing a library of this magnitude in today's digital era lies in its capacity to foster community engagement and reignite a passion for reading, interaction among readers, and the dissemination of knowledge. Establishing a profound connection with the community was crucial; the library's success hinged on the people embracing it as their own space. 


The library’s glass facade is China’s largest load bearing glass system  | Image by Yumeng Zhu; Courtesy of Snøhetta


To deeply embed itself within the community, the project's core design and functionality were centered around providing spaces that enhance the area's value. This was accomplished by integrating exhibition and conference rooms, performance venues, and multi-functional areas alongside the library, enriching the array of activities available to the community. These facilities not only enhance the library’s cultural significance but also draw people in to participate in these diverse activities, thereby reinforcing the historical relevance of libraries as public spaces. “The role libraries play in society and the way people use them has vastly changed,” said Robert Greenwood, partner and director of Asia Pacific at Snøhetta, “They are now needed to function as vibrant community spaces, enabling social interaction and knowledge-sharing.”


Different pockets allow users to sift through reading material, work in these zones, and engage with each other | Image by Yumeng Zhu; Courtesy of Snøhetta


A Natural Extension of Tongzhou's Environment

The Tongzhou district has several distinct landscape elements that local communities closely connect with. The project leverages these features to create a space that seamlessly integrates into its context in an attempt to foster a sense of belonging and forge a lasting connection with the local community. From the spatial flow of the library to key visual elements, Snøhetta has incorporated a number of contextual features into the design. 


Traversing through the interior volume, visitors follow an axis inspired by the Tonghui river, flanked by elevated 'hills' and punctuated with columns and canopies inspired by the majestic Ginkgo trees | Image by Yumeng Zhu; Courtesy of Snøhetta


As users enter the space, a 16-meter-high forum greets them, leading to a meandering pathway that forms the primary circulation path across the building, mirroring the nearby Tonghui river. Mimicking the valley that the river flows through and the rolling hills flanking either side, this central spine is flanked by terrace-like platforms that function as interaction spaces, bookshelves and seating. With sculpted stepped terraces surrounded by transparent glass walls, the design allows visitors to constantly engage with their surroundings, all while taking part in activities within the space.


Continuing its homage to its natural surroundings, the design integrates the iconic Ginkgo tree, a species with roots dating back 290 million years in the region. Positioned along the northern and southern perimeters of the building, these trees, visible through the transparent glass facade, blur the boundaries between indoor and outdoor environments. Reinforcing this connection, the structural columns are capped with Ginkgo leaf-shaped panels, filtering natural light into the space and creating a serene canopy within.


The heritage Ginkgo trees in contrast to the architectural elements inspired from it at the southern edge of the library | Image by Yumeng Zhu; Courtesy of Snøhetta


“It is up to us to reinterpret the relationship between body, mind, and the surroundings to rekindle the joy of reading away from the screen,” says Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, co-founder and partner at Snøhetta, “Libraries are here to stay.” Through these design interventions, the project has established a strong relationship with its landscaped context. The deliberate incorporation of local elements underscores the designers’ commitment to authenticity and plays a pivotal role in ensuring the library's resonance within the community.


The openness and expanse of the library allow for constant visual connection between people and the outside environment | Image by Yumeng Zhu; Courtesy of Snøhetta


Scale, Architecture, and Sustainability

It is no small feat bringing to reality the world’s largest climatized reading space. Several systems are put in place to ease both the functional aspects of the library as well as to aid in climate-conscious design. To enable efficiency in the functioning of the library, the largest book Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS) in the world is utilized, allowing for ease of use for readers as well as library staff. 


The Ginkgo tree columns employ a 9x9-meter grid system to streamline fabrication and installation processes | Image by Yumeng Zhu; Courtesy of Snøhetta


To help minimize the building’s carbon footprint, both structural and design interventions played a vital role. The use of modular components helped reduce manufacturing waste as well as streamlined installation processes to make construction efficient. The Ginkgo tree columns employ a 9x9-meter grid system, strategically rotated at specific points to introduce variation while streamlining fabrication and installation processes. Other functions incorporated into these columns include automated technology to control sound, ambient temperature control, and lighting and rainwater collection. 


The large roof, which the user experiences as a canopy of Ginkgo leaves, helps filter natural light and illuminate the space, while externally integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) elements help cater to the energy requirements of the library. Large roof overhangs further help reduce excess heat gain. 


The modular Ginkgo tree-inspired canopy functions as an aesthetic element while assisting with temperature control,  light control, and rainwater harvesting | Image by  Yumeng Zhu; Courtesy of Snøhetta


Snøhetta, having previously designed the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Library in Egypt in 2002, followed by the Charlotte Mecklenburg and the Far Rockaway libraries in the USA, came into this project with a vision to restore the relevance of libraries as community spaces rather than "a mere repository of books." The project, as a result, stands as a beacon, inspiring local communities and governing bodies to embrace future endeavors with similar functionalities, fostering spaces where individuals can connect, engage with each other and together rediscover the joy of reading.

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