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Monday, October 08, 2001

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt by SNØHETTA, 2001

One of the most anticipated buildings since Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt by Norway's SNØHETTA opened its doors on the first of October, commencing a year-long inauguration. A year is a relatively short time, as the story of the New Alexandrian Library extends back to ancient Egypt, through to the conquests of Julius Ceasar, up to the present day and into the future. In its built form the library expresses this passage of time and our relationship to it as human beings.


The Ancient Library of Alexandria marks a dramatic change in human history, particularly man's relationship to his surroundings. Two millennia ago at the library Euclid discovered the elements of geometry, a view unchanged until Einstein's General Theory of Relativity in the early 20th century; Ptolemy and Erastothenes used science to measure and describe the world; Herophilus established the rules of anatomy; and Callimachus developed our modern library cataloging system. Here Ancient man evolved towards Modern man: man of thinking, reasoning, and science. Home to the largest collection of text in the world at the time, among those mentioned above, the "Great Library" was supposedly destroyed by Julius Caesar during the Roman civil war. Rebuilt multiple times after its destruction, the new Library at Alexandria is aware of this history and attempts to elucidate it through its architecture.


Obviously the most important formal characteristic of the building is the inclined, circular plane which pierces the earth and rises high above the ground datum. As roof and container, it is bound by an inclined, curving wall, constructed of stone bands carved with characters from now extinct symbolic languages (e.g. cuneiform and hieroglyphics) and patterns from nature. Together the circular plane, the ground datum, and the tilted wall comprise a temporal metaphor: the plane represents the passage of time as it cuts through the ground (present), bound by the wall, tilting to reflect below (past) to above (future). The carvings in the wall reinforce this idea, resembling layers and marking time through human interaction, through language. Furthermore, by surrounding the building with water, the reflection of sun, sky and wall ties the elements together through time.


As the role of information, especially through the rapid acceleration of technology, has changed drastically since the times of the Ancient Library, the role of the New Library attempts to reconcile what libraries have been in the past with what they can be in the future. The library uses information and technology as ideas that can bridge the gap between past and future: information from all over the world is gathered to continue the Ancient Library's ambition of "knowledge for power", while technology is seen as a by-product not a medium, so that technology does not erase our memories of the past, in particular of the library itself. The architecture symbolizes this bridging; the tilted wall indicative of the monumentality of ancient stone structures, the roof a product of modern steel-and-glass engineering.


The building's lack of a typical front, side, back and top is apparent inside the library, as the roof, a complex screen with solar sails to diffuse light, also acts as an elevation and provides views towards the sea. Apparent in the image from the first page, the roof resembles a microchip, symbolic of the information contained within but also interdependent upon the various interior conditions of the library. The large, stepping interior space is reached from the entrance at ground level (present) by moving down to the symbolic intersection of past and present, lending the space a role of symbolism as well as drama. In this area the occupant is aware of the earth and the sky meeting at the intersection of building and ground, a natural convergence expressed through human thought and action.


Regardless of the symbolism and metaphorical intentions speculated upon here, the library contains rich qualities of space and presence through the simple, yet unique gesture of tilted plane and wall. Even without an awareness of the library's past, or the Ancient Library's existence, one is impressed by the architecture of the New Library, a testament to the power of the ideas present in the design and their successful translation into the final product.

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