Qatar’s National Library is a Modern Wonderland of Books
Old historic libraries full of ornately carved wood will always be iconic, but a new crop of modern libraries is proving just how well 21st-century design can complement row after row of books. Most recently, the stunning Tianjin Binhai Library by Dutch architecture firm MVRDV made waves on the internet with its futuristic yet organic design, featuring undulating layers of shelving spread out over five floors with an illuminated globe-shaped amphitheater glowing at its center. Now, prepare to be dazzled by a similarly innovative library design by OMA.
The 42,000-square-foot Qatar National Library aims to immerse visitors in a sea of books the second they step inside. If you’ve ever walked into a library or bookstore and felt a little flutter in your heart at the wonder of being surrounded by so many volumes of knowledge and imagination, you’ll understand what OMA’s lead architect Rem Koolhaas was going for with this layout. The shelves cascade from the center of the building up toward the ceilings at the outer walls, so you can really take in that satisfying moment of gazing upon the library’s sizable collection.
“We designed the space so you can see all the books in a panorama,” says Koolhaas. “You emerge immediately surrounded by literally every book — all physically present, visible, and accessible, without any particular effort. The interior is so large it’s on an almost urban scale: it could contain an entire population, and also an entire population of books.”
The Qatar National Library’s stunning diamond-shaped glass and reflective aluminum facade floods the interior with bright yet diffused natural light, which is carried through the space by glossy white surfaces and faintly blue-green glass railings. Each shelf housing the main collection is made from the same white marble as the floors, while the heritage collection is contained within a labyrinth of semi-private rooms clad in rich beige travertine and sunken into the center of the space.
Walkways cross over and through many of these rooms, allowing guests to lean over their edges and peer inside them. Zig-zagging ramps not only make the entire collection accessible to anyone who wishes to peruse it, but they also create a dramatic visual effect. A column-free bridge connects the library’s main aisles and marks the site of several reading tables, media and study rooms, exhibitions, displays, a conference table, and a large multipurpose auditorium enclosed by a retractable curtain.
“The physical impact of books has been important in terms of my entire formation,” says Koolhaas. “The first books that fascinated me were the fairy tales of Grim illustrated by Gustave Doré. I still remember the physical nature of those books as one of the strongest memories of my entire life. In the 1950s I would spend time in the library of the Stedelijk Museum — almost like in a living room. My first intersection of writing and architecture was Delirious New York, which I wrote in the New York Public Library, going through microfilms, old newspapers, and books. I made one particular seat my own, almost day and night.”