AD Classics: Bibliotheca Alexandrina / Snøhetta

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina on Egypt’s Mediterranean Coast is a spectacular, state-of-the-art facility with an unresolved architectural identity. Commissioned in 1989 as a contemporary resurrection of the fabled Library at Alexandria once venerated throughout the ancient world, the present building was intended to serve as a city’s connection to history and heritage. But its stark modernity and technological innovations make it decidedly more forward-looking than historically referential, a cosmopolitan exploration of form and engineering perhaps longing for a stronger sense of regional belonging.

To some critics, the library has political overtones that obfuscate its architectural message, at worst acting as a monument to political posturing whose utility and conceptual integrity is only of secondary concern. And while critical scrutiny of the project necessitates its political and socio-historical contextualization, the building's architecture—the competition-winning design submitted by Norwegian firm Snøhetta—is worth appreciating and evaluating as an autonomous object and as a precedent for contemporary library design.

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Courtesy of Snøhetta

From the shoreline, the library appears as a disc-shaped volume one hundred-sixty meters in diameter, tilted forward toward the water in the shape of a wedge. The architects intended the pure geometry of the circular plan to "recall the cyclical nature of knowledge, fluid throughout time" and to reflect the circular layout of the Alexandrian harbor. [1] Although this blithe description is fairly specious taken literally, the reference suggests a genuine appeal to a timeless, universal, and perhaps archetypal form, both evocative and provocative in its purity. And in this it succeeds; between its massive size and its striking, clean profile, the Library exerts a commanding, primeval presence over the harbor city.

Aerial views reveal the simplicity of the library's formal concept. Image Courtesy of Snøhetta

The difference between aerial photographs and the in-vivo experience is essential to the comprehensibility of the library: what may appear from images and models to be a monolithic, blocky diagram is far from the in-person impression afforded from the ground plane. Complexity is contributed at the human scale through structural and material details, incisions into the circular shape, and an elaborate interior program contoured to the dramatic incline of the roof. The interplay of multi-directional curves and intersecting planes gives the library an energetic dynamism, particularly from the exterior approach. In an age in which buildings are too often intended to express themselves best through renderings, the Bibliotheca provides Alexandria with welcome relief: a library designed for consumption through physical occupation rather than through simulacra (although the possibility exists that this is a merely generous reading of a building whose concept is simply clumsy in any other medium).

Courtesy of Snøhetta

The carefully choreographed groundscape constitutes one of the great successes of Snøhetta’s design. Around the exterior, an expansive open plaza and a reflecting pool buffer the library from the chaotic environment of urban Alexandria and provide it with a dramatic and forgiving canvas from which its unusual form can emerge. Dipping below the water table created by the pool, the entire library volume seems to pivot atop the surface of the Earth, an effect emphasized by the angled gradient of the granite-clad walls. On the southern side, this monolithic, curved profile dramatically soars thirty-two meters above the plaza without revealing anything of the building’s overall form to the city behind it. As an homage to history and tradition, this wall is carved with a series of texts in languages both modern and extinct, alluding to the library’s worldliness. Although these token bits of symbolism are visually entertaining and beautifully executed, they ring somewhat hollow, as if the difficulty of genuine cultural evocation on a more fundamental or conceptual level gave way to a literalist and superficial attempt to convey the library’s function.

Carvings in the granite allude to the library's ancient heritage. Image Courtesy of Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Inside, just below the sloping crystalline canopy, the great reading room—the crown jewel of the library—brings the size and magnificence of the design into a single view. Seven stacked tiers of platforms, reminiscent of the trays of Harvard’s Gund Hall, overlap one another in an unending expanse of diagonally vectored space, large enough to house some two thousand visitors. Soaring columns lift the ceiling high into the air, recalling the dramatic, flaring supports of Labrouste’s Bibliotheque Nacionale and Wright’s Johnson Wax Building. Perhaps in this spectacular arena alone, the building is truly recognizable as a library, functionally and genealogically tied to a typological model well established in architectural tradition.

Programmatic fragmentation results in the creation of intimately scaled spaces for individual use. Image Courtesy of Snøhetta

It is in this reading room, too, that the architecture most glorifies the acts of scholarship and erudition. Basking in diffuse northern sunlight pouring through the roof, the warmth of the natural wood finishes and the staggered floor arrangement create thrilling Bachelardian moments of space that straddle the diametrics of the intimate and the immense. Richly textured wall finishes, meticulous structural articulations, and an innovative skylight system with the sculptural playfulness of a Miralles window sequence break down the enormous space further into a delicate interplay of details on an appreciably human scale.

Elegant north-facing skylights block direct sunlight from entering the reading room. Image Courtesy of Snøhetta

Book and manuscript repositories, capable of housing over eight million volumes, neatly occupy the spaces below the reading room. Other elements of the interior program, including permanent exhibits on Egyptian politics past and present, art galleries, a planetarium, and a school for information sciences complete a well-choreographed and impressive presentation to visitors. The library’s eleven floors, with an overall height of forty-three meters, create an astounding 80,000 square meters of floor space—one of the largest libraries in Africa by area.

Elevation and section drawings

Of course, the standard metric of library size used elsewhere—collection capacity—reveals problems with the politics of the Bibliotheca’s origins. The final construction price tag of nearly $200 million left little funding for the library’s collections, and despite a sizable gift of a half-million Francophone books from the French government in 2010, the building will operate severely under capacity for the foreseeable future. [2] The lack of post-construction consideration presents a conflicting narrative of the building as the vanity project of an unpopular government, a vehicle of international posturing and a domestic display of false prosperity undertaken with disregard for real utility. And of course, this possibility raises concerns about the fiscal responsibility of a massive, luxurious civic project in a country with troublingly high rates of poverty and food insecurity (among other more recent crises), though the larger question of the merits of architectural and infrastructural investment are subject to another, larger debate.

Courtesy of Snøhetta

The more immediate questions posed by the library engage architectural theory with questions of intentionality. As concerns the architects, should their inspirations and spoken testimony affect our reading of the finished product? Should the agendas of the government that financed the project alter our understanding of its success? Or can the library’s architecture be appreciated independently and autonomously, studied for its innovations and wonders, and absolved of accountability for erroneous decisions of process and priority? Such a reading would act to the benefit of this particular project, whose architectural merits deserve commendation but stand to be overshadowed by placing it within the context of a political game.

Courtesy of Snøhetta

[1] Snøhetta. "Bibliotheca Alexandrina." Retrieved 23 January 2015 from

[2] O'Neal, Jeff. "Bibliotheca Alexandrina: The Great Library of Alexandria Reborn?" Bookriot. Retrieved 23 January 2015 from

Alexandria, Egypt
  • Architects: Snøhetta
  • Year Completion year of this architecture project Year:  2001

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Cite: David Langdon. "AD Classics: Bibliotheca Alexandrina / Snøhetta" 03 Feb 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

Courtesy of Snøhetta

AD经典:新亚历山大图书馆 / Snøhetta

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