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National Library of China by KSP Jurgen Engel Architekten

Oriel Prizeman examines six recent libraries in the first of a new quarterly series on typology

Containing 12 million volumes, this is third largest library in the world. Though surrounded by a moat, it fits the vast motorised urban grid
of Beijing. Its adjacency on the west to the picturesque Zizhuyan Black Bamboo Park is punctuated by tower blocks. A visual separation between horizontal elements refers to traditional Chinese precedents of deep overhanging eaves.

The building has three distinct constructional and functional layers: earthbound historic base; publically navigable and translucent central portion; and a digital roof layer.

Extraordinary efforts were made to lift its earthquake-proof steel canopy into place. It enables a 60m span across a naturally lit reading room with 2,000 seats extending vertically from the basement to the third floor, entirely free of columns. The room would neatly house the entire footprint of Birmingham’s new library. This man-made cultural cavern is designed to sandwich past and future and its three-dimensional void promises a concept of freedom. Although the quality of its design is clearly in contrast to unremarkable neighbouring blocks, its glowing, floating form in the humid air of Beijing might have been more impressive had it been allowed to refer further to the setting of its ancient precedents and were it not bordered by an eight-lane highway.

Beijing, China, 2008: 80,000m² /1.235 billion RMB yuan (£122.4 million)

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