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Beijing City Library: Snøhetta Designs World’s Largest Climatized Reading Space

Beijing City Library, China / Snøhetta

The Beijing City Library, designed by Snøhetta, has recently opened its doors to the public, establishing itself as the largest climatized reading space in the world. This architectural marvel represents Snøhetta‘s latest contribution to the library typology, following their renowned work on the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt over three decades ago. Situated in the Tongzhou District, the library’s glass-lined structure not only invites the beauty of nature into its reading space but also showcases the enriched interior environment when viewed from the outside. In doing so, it not only enhances the vibrancy of the district itself but also seamlessly integrates with Beijing’s urban fabric.

Beijing City Library, China / Snøhetta

In the past, libraries were perceived as a dying breed due to the widespread digitization of information, which made it accessible anytime and anywhere. However, Snøhetta‘s vision for the Beijing City Library challenges this notion and reestablishes the library’s relevance in today’s society. By emphasizing the physicality of books as objects and the deliberate act of turning their pages to immerse oneself in the written word, the library offers a unique and enriching experience amidst its picturesque surroundings of hills, trees, and the Tonghui river. Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, the co-founder and partner of Snøhetta, believes that it is people’s love for books that has allowed libraries to endure the digital age and presents new opportunities for them to contribute to the city and its public. He states, “It is up to us to redefine the relationship between the body, mind, and the environment in order to reignite the joy of reading away from screens. Libraries are here to stay.”

Beijing City Library, China / Snøhetta

Drawing inspiration from the historical origins of libraries, which have always responded to the needs of their time and place, the Beijing City Library’s core purpose is to foster open exchanges of ideas and facilitate human dialogue. Throughout the library, dedicated spaces have been designed to accommodate exhibitions, performances, conferences, and the restoration of ancient books. This multifunctional approach ensures that the library serves as a dynamic hub for intellectual and cultural activities, further enhancing its significance within the community.

Beijing City Library, China / Snøhetta

At the core of the Beijing City Library lies a grand, nearly 16-meter-tall welcoming space from which stepped terraces ascend along smooth, rhythmic curves. Carved through the center is a winding pathway known as the Valley, which acts as the primary circulation route of the structure. The Valley mimics the path of the nearby Tonghui river, extending the connection to the surrounding landscape and linking the entrances on the north and south sides to guide visitors to all other areas within.

Beijing City Library, China / Snøhetta

The terraced hills emerging from the Valley are crafted to form a sculpted interior landform that functions as the floor, seating, and shelving—a casual area with spaces for relaxation, conversation, or quiet reading, all while remaining connected to the larger environment. Semi-private reading nooks and meeting rooms are integrated into the hills, while bookshelves and table seating are positioned on long, flat surfaces above. This central open space is fully accessible and features one of the largest Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS) for books in the world.

Beijing City Library, China / Snøhetta

The Valley is punctuated by tall, slender columns that transition between the scale of the space and the books. These columns resemble ginkgo leaves, paying homage to a tree species that has existed for 290 million years in China. The panels formed by the overlapping columns and the glass inserts allow filtered daylight to flood the interiors, creating a canopy-like roof. Under this ginkgo canopy, visitors can reach the summit and enjoy panoramic views of the valley of books and the expansive horizon.

Beijing City Library, China / Snøhetta

According to Robert Greenwood, Partner and Director of Asia Pacific at Snøhetta, the terraced landscape and tree-like columns encourage visitors to lift their gaze and appreciate the larger perspective. This space is designed to be a place where one can sit under a tree and indulge in their favorite book. The Beijing City Library holds an intergenerational quality, where stories can be passed down to children and introduce them to beloved titles.

Beijing City Library, China / Snøhetta

At the entry points of the library, real ginkgo trees are planted, further enhancing the connection with nature. The hills at the northern and southern edges of the library are strategically designed to focus the views outward, strengthening the bond between the library and its natural surroundings.

Beijing City Library, China / Snøhetta

The Beijing City Library has taken a fresh approach to addressing the urgent climate challenges of our time, while also enhancing the visitor experience through the integration of cutting-edge technology. This remarkable building has achieved China’s GBEL Three Star rating, which is the highest sustainability standard attainable in the country. This accomplishment has been made possible by minimizing both the embodied and operational carbon of the structure.

Beijing City Library, China / Snøhetta

One of the key strategies employed in the construction of the library is the use of modular components and a rationalized structural grid. This approach has significantly reduced manufacturing waste, making the building more environmentally friendly. Notably, the ginkgo tree columns, which are a prominent feature of the library, are created using a single module type that is rotated on a 9x9m grid throughout the entire building. This clever design not only creates the illusion of variety but also ensures efficiency in fabrication and installation.

Beijing City Library, China / Snøhetta

Moreover, these ginkgo tree columns serve multiple functions beyond their aesthetic appeal. They house integrated technology that controls the interior climate, lighting, and acoustics of the library. Additionally, they collect rainwater from the roof, which is then channeled to a green infrastructure system for irrigation purposes. This innovative approach to water management further contributes to the library’s sustainability goals.

Beijing City Library, China / Snøhetta

Overall, the Beijing City Library stands as a testament to the possibilities of combining sustainable design principles with advanced technology. By reimagining the role of libraries in addressing climate challenges, this remarkable building sets a new standard for environmentally conscious architecture.

Image courtesy of Yumeng Zhu