Qatar National Library
Lengthening a long-term interest in the library dating back to the competition for the National Library of France in 1989 and following the Seattle Central Library in the US and the Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville in Caen, France; OMA’s latest expression, the Qatar National Library continues to navigate a desire to transition the historic role of the library into the 21st century. Aggregating Doha’s National Library, Public Library and University Library while preserving the Heritage collection at the heart of its design; the building works at an almost urban scale, matching the rise of Qatar’s influence in the region and accommodating the Education City it is placed in.
Housing this astounding new library, the Education City in Qatar, was conceived as a groundbreaking new academic campus, aggregating and hosting a number of satellite campuses from the leading universities and institutions around the world. It’s latest addition; the Qatar National Library sits stoically as a cornerstone of such an educational agglomeration. The library houses over a million books and space for thousands of readers/users in a combined area of 42,000m2.
At 138 meters long, the large monolithic building is conceived as a single room: a pursuance to make reading as accessible and as stimulating to the population of Qatar as a whole, and it certainly tries to within its gargantuan scale. From the exterior, the buildings concrete corners are folded up off the ground, revealing a much smaller entrance threshold while providing a transitional shaded space from the Doha heat. Internally it conceives three internal aisles for books that terrace down to the centre while moulding the diamond-shaped profile of the exterior. Most importantly, this architectural gesture enables access from the centre of the ‘room’; where Rem Koolhaas suggests one would “emerge immediately surrounded by literally every book – all physically present, visible, and accessible, without any particular effort. The library is a space that could contain an entire population, and also an entire population of books…”
The entrance threshold is one of the key moments in this building. Its visual impact is overwhelming and held as you enter a single enormous internal space, interrupted only by a few slender pillars. Three large, tiered aisles of shelves and readings spaces diminish to points on the exterior; reminiscent of the ancient glazed ziggurats, multi-coloured and full of life. These accommodate the book collection and, at the same time, enclose a central triangular space. This configuration allows the users of the library to access the building from its core, immersed in the heart of the library, rather than entering in laboriously from the perimeter and navigating from the edge.
Also at the centre of the library, in a six-meter-deep, maze-like excavated space, is the Heritage Collection. Clad in beige travertine, the regions rich culture and heritage is held here; making available Qatar’s most valuable texts and manuscripts related to the Arab-Islamic civilization. It is evocative of OMA’s past design for Lab City outside Paris, where parts of the excavated spaces are covered with viewing platforms; showcasing the travertine clad walkways and the heritage collection like an archaeological dig. This section of the library can also operate autonomously, directly accessible from the outside. One of the beauties of this space is that when you feel too compressed you can simply look out, to a vast and light filled space, surrounded by books and an undulating glass exterior framing the rest of the Education City as well as Doha’s skyline in the distance.
Within this single room, the library acts as a shelf for both information and users. It houses, contains and merges the operation of the user and the book. This outcome is facilitated by the singularity of the space, where the designed topography of shelving that flows through the building is interspersed with spaces for reading, socializing and browsing. This topographical configuration of both the shelving and leftover spaces allows the library to weave moments of chaos/interaction and solitude, facilitating the readers experience. The shelving, designed to be an extension of the building, both in materiality and infrastructure, are made of the same white marble as the floors and also incorporate artificial lighting, ventilation, and the book return system.
When the great allure of the unified central space feels too immense, a 25 meter wide mezzanine – what OMA calls the ‘bridge’ – spans one end of the building to the other, hovering over the literary topography below. It provides flat open areas for study and other meeting places. Where it meets the back of the building, a large, flexible, curtained auditorium is accommodated; designed by Amsterdam studio InsideOutside, who were also responsible for the landscaping.
The majority of the exterior is open to the surrounding landscape and Education City, breaking the large mass of its profile. Responsively the bright Qatar sunlight has been filtered and diffused by the corrugated glass façade and further illuminating the center through the glossy white glass-fiber reinforced plastic panels, bouncing daylight and creating a vast interior, optimally lit for reading.
Within the multi-level portion of the building are auxiliary spaces including offices, computer labs, storage, a children’s library and a cafeteria. The external glass does not undulate here, providing a non-distorted view for the workers and plenty of light through the external sunken patio, which also acts as a transitory space before entering the ‘room’ of books.
The Qatar National Library exists as a testimony to a future for Qatar’s potential and significant role and influence in bridging knowledge, tolerance and greater dialogue within the region and to a global reach. It also exists as comment to the often-suitable tendency for radical architecture to be produced within the typology of the library; where the new Qatar National Library by OMA mediates this tendency and showcases an engaged approach where space, light, materials, landscape and user experience outplay brash experiments and radical form.