The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is built on a magnificent site alongside Alexandria's ancient harbor in the historic center of the city. The 11-story library can contain up to 4 million volumes of books, and can be expanded up to 8 million by the use of compact storage. In addition to the library facilities, it also contains other cultural and educational functions including a planetarium, several museums, a school for information science, and conservation facilities.
Characterized by its circular, tilting form, the building spans 160 meters in diameter and reaches up to 32 meters in height, while also diving some 12 meters into the ground. An open plaza and reflecting pool surrounds the building, and a footbridge links the city to the nearby University of Alexandria.
Ministry of Education, Egypt
2 A new symbol for learning and culture
Conceived as a revival of the ancient library in the city founded by Alexander the Great some 2300 years ago and lost to civilization centuries later, the new Alexandria Library is a contemporary design for students, researchers and the public. The design of the new library is both timeless and bold. Its vast circular form alongside the circular Alexandrian harbor recalls the cyclical nature of knowledge, fluid throughout time. It's glistening, tilting roof recalls the ancient Alexandrian lighthouse and provides the city with a new symbol for learning and culture.
The form of a circle expresses the basic continuity of man's existence. The sun is a circle, the moon is often an emerging circle. The circle is a symbol of unity and continuity that embraces the past, present, and future. The cylindrical masonry form emerges from the earth like the rebirth of an earlier form.
Mr. John Carl Warneke Chairman of the jury of the architectural competition
3 The Revival of an idea
Built upon the notion that a revival of the ancient library of Alexandria could build a reawakening of culture and knowledge in the Mediterranean region, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is the result of decades of planning, design and construction.
Due to the international significance of the project and the exceptional scale of the historical context, the project required an approach that allowed for an abstraction of already understood formal languages. The result is an expression that is at once recognizable and unique.
Jacques Tocatlian UNESCO
4 12 years to complete
The University of Alexandria donated a site of 45 000 square meters and on 26 June 1988, President Hosni Mubarak and the Director General of UNESCO laid the first stone of the library. An international architectural competition was organized in late 1988, which attracted over 1300 architects from 77 countries to register. 524 entries were received and submitted to the international jury of seven architects and two librarians. The young and unknown practice called Snøhetta won, consisting on a truly international team.
In October 1990, a project agreement was signed by the government of Egypt and UNESCO, setting up the international framework and the organs of the project. Archeological excavations on the site uncovered ruins of Roman villas and beautiful mosaics, delaying the building process, and the first phase of construction eventually launched in 1994. After some US$220 million had been spent, the complex was officially inaugurated on 16 October 2002.
Today, the Library of Alexandria is an academic powerhouse that impacts cultural and social life in Egypt and beyond. It hosts an annual average of 1500 programs, lectures, classes, conferences, concerts and one million visitors. Among the multitude of programs, there are conferences with national and international participation that draw thousands of participants, including many from the younger generation. The library's overarching themes are peace, democracy, citizenship, and innovative scientific, cultural and social issues with global impact.
5 The world's largest open reading room
The 11-story library can contain up to 4 million volumes of books, a figure that can be expanded up to 8 million in the future using compact storage. The 20,000 m2 open reading room for 2000 readers, the largest of its kind, worldwide, occupies more than half of the library's volume and is stepped over seven terraces. Indirectly lit by vertical, north facing skylights in the roof, the spacious room will not be exposed to direct sunlight that is harmful to books and manuscripts.
The terraced reading room design reduces book retrieval time considerably, compared to traditional library planning. Reading areas and stacks are arranged at close proximity at the same level, the stacks being placed at each terrace level, underneath the next higher terrace. This way, the readers who are sitting at the terrace edge, enjoy maximum exposure to natural light and grand views of the space while being in close proximity to the associated book storage area. This concept is repeated throughout the room and creates a large amphitheater with a large variety of evenly lit reading facilities.
6 Art celebrating the smallest written element
Made of nearly 6000 square meters of hand-carved stone, the exterior façade of Bibliotheca Alexandrina is one of the largest contemporary art projects in the world. The idea of the protective stone wall was born during the library's competition phase, with Norwegian artist Jorunn Sannes creating the expression and content. During the process, she collaborated with renowned Norwegian sculptor Kristian Blystad.
The façade consists of two walls, one above and one below ground, made of Egyptian granite monoliths. Each stone is approximately 20 cm thick, one meter wide, and ranges from one to two meters in height. The wall carvings display most of the world's known writing systems, including around 4,000 unique characters from various alphabets, symbols, musical and mathematical notation, Braille, and bar-codes mixed with familiar inscriptions covering some 10,000 years of history.
A fusion of culture and nature
The wall is a canvas of letters and symbols without a specific statement and an artistic celebration of the smallest element of the library's content, the letter. Unlike in the library's books, the letters and characters aren't in any specific order. Instead, they act as a work of art in varying sizes and intensities. The distinctive qualities of each inscription, therefore, provide an overall aesthetic beauty and sensibility.
Whereas the content is a collage of letters, signs, and symbols from the history of humankind, the actual walls were inspired by the ancient natural layers in their physical make-up, creating a fusion of culture and nature. The vertical stacking of the stone slabs is perpendicular to the axis of the tilted elliptical cylinder creating the building. Varying stone dimensions represent layers of bygone eras unveiled by erosion. In addition, the geologic lines illuminate the energy of the roof being lifted from the ground.
Reviving forgotten traditions
The art project was made possible by the interaction between Norwegian and Egyptian specialists and artisans. The stone, a Grey Schulmann granite, came from a previously closed quarry in Aswan, near the Sudanese border. Despite Egypt having thousands of years of experience with stonework, much of the knowledge had been forgotten due to industrialization and the development of thinner, mass-produced stone slabs for building facades.
With support from the Norwegian Aid Agency, NORAD, the project team helped reopen the old Aswan quarry and established an educational program, teaching around 20 young Egyptian stonemasons how to extract and hand-split stone slabs. They were also taught how to use handheld chisels for the different engravings, which were carved in the stone workshop and later installed on stainless steel brackets set onto the structural concrete of the building.
7 A hallmark in environmental consideration
Planned a decade before the popular appeal of sustainable design, the building is a hallmark in environmental consideration. Over 80% of the materials were locally produced, the interior relies heavily on natural light and fresh air for comfort, and the exterior is planned around thermal massing and building placement to create a comfortable, even temperature inside. The surrounding water pool helps to naturally diminish air pollution in the vicinity.
8 Snøhetta Books 002: Bibliotheca Alexandrina
Snøhetta's own book tells the story behind this defining project and retraces history to explore both the importance and impact of architecture, art, and design and also of cultural exchange, mutual understanding, and collaboration.