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© 2019

Strelka Institute

Bersenevskaya embankment 14, bldg. 5A Moscow, Russia, 119072

Restoring an Arab renaissance: Inside OMA’s Qatar National Library

, Architecture

The book is not dead, Rem Koolhaas reaffirms as the grand National Library opens in Doha.

Located in a university quarter on the outskirts of Doha, the OMA-designed Qatar National Library (QNL) has already become a major landmark and a source of national pride. Dominating the flat desert landscape, the vast diamond-shaped building is a state-of-the-art facility with the capacity to display more than one million books and host thousands of readers over an area of 42,000 square meters. The library seeks to become the region’s leading center of learning, research, and culture – a challenging task amid the current diplomatic standoff between Qatar and its neighbors.

After first opening its doors to visitors in October last year, the library was officially inaugurated on Monday by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The grand ceremony was attended by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the emir’s mother and one of the most influential public figures in the Arab world, who initiated the QNL project.

Speaking at the opening, Sheikha Moza stressed that the library “invokes a great sense of historical pride and belonging to the Arab world, which pioneered writing, transcription, and libraries in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago.”

“The idea of the National Library was inspired by this glorious history, in hopes of restoring an Arab renaissance that we do not want to lose,” she said.

A month before the official opening, Rem Koolhaas gave a tour of the library to members of the press, including Strelka Magazine.

Built over a period of five years from 2012 to 2017, it was originally conceived as a university library in Education City, a vast campus which was master-planned by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. Later, the concept grew bigger. “It was a good thing that it didn’t start as a national library,” Koolhaas said. “Because then we would have had to think from the beginning about national representation. But we didn’t – so that gave us a kind of freedom.”

The building contains Doha’s National Library, Public Library, University Library, and the Heritage Library. It is a flagship project for the Qatar Foundation – a non-profit organization seeking the country’s transition to a knowledge-based economy.

The latest project in Doha is the third library to be built by OMA. From competition projects for Très Grande Bibliothèque and the two libraries at Jussieu to completed libraries in Seattle and Caen, France, OMA seeks to create civic spaces that aim to reassure that the future will not spell the end of the book.

“When we started Seattle [Central Library] is seemed as if the book had to prove its own justification because in the American West Coast there was almost an assumption that the book would disappear,” Koolhaas recalled, stressing that now there is a sense that the survival of the book is not questioned anymore.

“You can see that the digital is integrated to facilitate everything, but no longer seen as this kind of big thing that might eventually erode.”

The edges of the 138-meter-long building are elevated, creating three aisles and enclosing a central triangular space. The lifted corners create shaded spaces – a precious thing in the Gulf climate – and allow you enter the building at its center. The library’s main aisles are connected by a column-free bridge, which also hosts media and study rooms, as well as an auditorium. The Amsterdam-based studio InsideOutside created a massive retractable curtain to enclose the auditorium, and also designed the landscaping.

Sunken below the ground level and reminiscent of an archaeological site, the heritage section of the library contains more than 4,000 manuscripts and many other rare artifacts related to the history and culture of the Islamic world and Qatar.

An automated checkout system allows readers to be as independent as possible in their use of the facility. “From all the libraries I’ve known this is the most technologically advanced,” said executive director Sohair F. Wastawy, who was chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.

During the ceremony on Monday, the one-millionth book was placed on the shelves by the emir. Almost all of the books are displayed in the open space and are accessible to visitors.

“We designed the space so you can see all the books in a panorama,” Koolhaas said at the opening ceremony. “You emerge immediately surrounded by literally every book – all physically present, visible, and accessible, without any particular effort.”

Under the scorching Qatari sun, temperature soars up to 50 degrees Celsius in the summer, making air-conditioned shopping malls the most ubiquitous gathering place. In this environment, the Qatar National Library attempts to redefine what a public space is.

“The interior is so large it’s on an almost urban scale; it could contain an entire population, and also an entire population of books,” Koolhaas said.

He argues that the library is making a revival around the world – not only as a place of learning, but also as a social place. “You see very well – how it acts almost like a plaza,” he said in reference to the expansive open space of the building, equivalent in length to two 747s.

The architect believes that libraries as typology can bring truly radical architecture to life. “Apparently, there is a paradox that such a traditional form produces inventive solutions, and that is the case for the Qatar National Library.”

Photos: Timur Zolotoev

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