In ART

Doha’s National Library is a symbol of Qatar’s ambition to become a knowledge-based economy

While libraries were once rigidly codified institutions synonymous with solitude, they are now places for exchange and interaction, flexible to the new forms of experiencing the written word. At the Qatar National Library in Doha, which opened in April 2018, Pritzker Prize-winning Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) entirely rethought the library for the digital age, revived its role as a space for social exchange and adapted it to the changing ways of researching, processing and disseminating knowledge.

Qatar National Library. Photograph by Hans Werlemann, Courtesy of OMA
Qatar National Library. Photograph by Hans Werlemann, Courtesy of OMA

The Qatar National Library, a diamond-shaped structure of glass, steel and marble, raised above ground and topped with an aluminium ceiling filtering the sunlight, beckons the visitor to the wealth of knowledge held throughout its 45,000 square metres. The building brings books and people together by design: one enters it from its middle, and immediately takes in the entire panorama across the library’s interior. A sense of lightness permeates the space, with the ubiquitous white marble, the expansive glass panels of the façade that attenuate sunlight and the elongated columns punctuating the space. In the immense single room, open bookshelves are aligned on terraced aisles, produced by lifting three of the building’s edges at an angle, as if folding a sheet of paper. Interspersed with reading and socialising zones, the rows of shelves, home to more than a million volumes, in Arabic, English and several other languages, meet in the middle of the library to form a triangular open-plan foyer dedicated to mingling, studying and reflecting, thus fostering the exchange of ideas.

Qatar National Library. Photograph by Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti, Courtesy of OMA

The very core of the library is marked by a six-metre-deep sunken area, revealing the lower-ground-level space housing the Heritage Collection. Its walls, covered in beige travertine stone, bring to mind an archaeological excavation into ancient knowledge. The collection, an invaluable resource on the history of Qatar and the Gulf region, boasts tens of thousands of historical objects and documents going back to the seventh century AD, including Arabic manuscripts, maps, and globes, and collections of photographs and scientific instruments. Yet, if the Qatar National Library puts the physical book centre stage, and glorifies the archive, it is also at the vanguard of technology: books are automatically ordered and returned, and collections of hundreds of thousands of digitalised pages are but a click away. A symbol of Qatar’s ambition to become a knowledge-based economy, OMA’s National Library simultaneously opens up windows of dialogue to build the future, and of research to understand the past.

A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS, 21 ARTISTS AND A BIENNIAL #49.

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