Turn over a new leaf

The Beijing City Library reinstates the relevance of the library in the digital age.
Photographs: Snøhetta, Yumeng Zhu
Photographs: Snøhetta, Yumeng Zhu

Designed by Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta, the Beijing City Library has opened its doors as the world’s largest climatised reading space, and an exciting example of a centre of learning culture and community in the 21st century.  


Drawing on the historical origins of libraries finding innovative responses to the needs of their time and place, Beijing City Library makes the open exchange of ideas and human dialogue its core purpose. Throughout, there are dedicated spaces for exhibitions, performances, conferences, and the restoration of ancient books. As the architects explain, the building firmly rejects the argument of the library becoming a derelict typology; instead, it creates numerous possibilities by fostering an emotional connection between books, people, and the natural landscape beyond.


‘The role libraries play in society and the way people use them have vastly changed,’ says 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.’


The glass-lined building invites nature into the reading space, the heart of which lies in a 16-metre-tall atrium called ‘The Valley’. A winding walkway mirrors the course of the nearby Tonghui river and hills are recreated with a series of mounds lined with tiered seating, stairs and bookshelves. Joining the space between the reading valley and more books is an artificial canopy of tall, slender columns that mushroom out into flat panels shaped like Ginko leaves – paying homage to the 290-million-year-old tree species native to China. Together the overlapping ‘leaves’ and glass panels create a canopy-like roof that floods the interior with dappled sunlight. 


‘The terraced landscape and tree-like columns invite visitors to lift their gaze and focus at a distance, taking in the bigger picture. This is a place where you can be sitting under a tree, reading your favourite book,’ says Greenwood. ‘The Beijing City Library has an intergenerational quality about it, where you would pass on your stories to children and introduce them to the titles you’ve loved.’


The new library is in Tongzhou district, a designated sub-centre of Beijing often considered the eastern gateway to the capital. As one of three new major cultural buildings in Tongzhou, the Beijing City Library establishes the area as a vibrant district in itself and an extension of Beijing’s urban fabric – anchoring a master plan to transform the area into a lively arts and culture destination. 


‘It is the love people have for books that has made libraries survive the digital age and hold new potential to give back more to the city and its public,’ notes Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, Co-founder and Partner at 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. Libraries are here to stay.’




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