The decision to rebuild Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the most famous library of all time, was announced in 1989 with the Norwegian architects Snøhetta winning the open international competition for its design.
Alexandria, founded in 332BC, was one of the greatest cities of the classical world and remained the capital of Egypt until 969AD.
The new library, built roughly on the site of the original Bibliotheca Alexandrina, is designed as a simple circle, 160 metres in diameter, going from 15.8 metres underground to 37 metres above ground. Seen from above it proposes the image of the sun (Egyptian hieroglyphs show the sun generally as a simple disk).
The partly glazed slanting roof of the main library, has been designed to angle sunlight, at optimum levels throughout the year, down to the desks and shelves set on tiers of galleried floors beneath it.
The composition of the roof grid transforms the traditional elevational aspects; making the roof screen the primary elevation of the building. The roof also operates as a connecting link allowing visual access to the exterior and vice-versa.
The tilting motion of the building is emphasized in the curving exterior wall that is clad in Aswan granite inscribed with calligraphy representing world civilisations. A moat that surrounds a major part of the building and serves, instead of fences, as a border to the library.
The vast curving wall of the Library’s exterior becomes its enclosure with slender fluted columns, beneath a sheet of diffuse light, supporting the great roof.
The floor of this 160 meters wide and 80 meters deep space terraces along 10 levels with a viewing platform at each level allowing unobstructed visibility to any destination.
The book stacks extend behind each terrace, that can be accessed independently via an external corridor, providing superior flexibility for the organization of each department.
Solar sails, installed at the ceiling, allows sunlight to diffuse into the interior space across the oak floors and custom-designed steel and timber furniture.
The project includes three main buildings; the Library, a Conference Center (built in 1992) and a new 18 meter tall black, steel and concrete, spherical Planetarium. A special museum for underwater monuments discovered in the eastern harbour is located under the Planetarium. The Conference Center and Library, although independent, share some facilities and the Plaza of Culture.
At its height in the third century BC, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was said to have housed 700,000 papyrus manuscripts. Its librarians, among them Archimedes and the astronomer Aristarchus, had collected the works of, among very many others, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Sophocles, Euripides, Hippocrates and Euclid, often when these authors were still at work.
The library and its fabulous collection was burned several times: accidentally during Julius Caesar’s siege of the city in 48BC (it was rebuilt by Mark Antony, who made a gift of 200,000 manuscripts to Cleopatra), in 272AD by order of the Emperor Aurelian, in 391 by Christians enraged by the cult of Seraphis and the pagan books held in the library, and finally, or so it is said, by the Caliph Omar (or Umar) in 638.
The new Alexandrina will house one of the world’s foremost collections of research materials and facilities becoming a new constructive agent to science, art and human culture. Opening with more than 200,000 volumes the library is targeted to contain five to 8 million volumes by 2020.
In addition to the library collections the Alexandrina will house a school of Information Studies and various museums and public displays. Developed as an autonomous public organization, its databases will be connected with the world library network and its main collection will house manuscripts ranging from Hellenistic, Egyptian and Islamic scriptures to modern interpretative literature.
Civil Engineering, a British engineering and construction magazine, awarded the Library of Alexandria a prize for the best construction design in the world for the year 2000.