The new Qatar National Library is the latest stage in this journey. Also designed by OMA, the library is a short walk from the Qatar Foundation building, next to a medical school building designed by Isozaki himself. In its use of white concrete, the QNL echoes both these earlier structures in an attempt to enter into dialogue with its surroundings. Its angular, elongated form rises up on two sides to form diamond-shaped glazed facades and two entryways – one of which doubles as a shaded social space, the other as a decorative patio featuring irregular vertical slabs of travertine. Clustered around the building are drought-tolerant agave plants and acacia trees.
Entering through the main entrance, you’re surrounded by a low hum of conversation. The space is buzzing with activity: a group of teenagers chatter and drink coffee while roaming the aisles; children jump up and down, jabbing their fingers against giant touch-screens; an older couple is engaged in quiet conversation while browsing through a pile of books. This is not a silent space.
Nor is it an especially cosy one. Essentially one giant room, with staff offices, archives and services tucked beneath, the building spans 138m – the length of two Boeing 747s. Despite its depth, natural light fills the space, flooding through the corrugated glass facade and bouncing off the reflective aluminium ceiling panels and the light marble floors. Above, is a column-free bridge with seating, meeting and conference areas; underneath it is a spot where the noise is somewhat absorbed by carpeting – with study spaces and a “book sushi bar” displaying the newest additions to the collection. OMA’s founder Rem Koolhaas explains the scale of the space in cultural terms: “One of greatest differences in between countries in terms of planning is how much space every individual needs or wants naturally. In the Middle East there’s a large amount of space that doesn’t need to be filled – typically there are large distances between people.”
The entrance takes you immediately into the heart of the library, with the entire topography of the interior spread around you. Everywhere you look, there are books. On each side, stacks edged by strip-lighting rise to the building’s upper corners like rolling hills, interspersed with platforms and intersections for reading, resting and socialising. In the middle is a valley – a 6m-deep void clad in beige travertine that resembles an archaeological excavation. This is the “heritage library”, a public collection of more than 50,000 books, images, manuscripts and maps from across the Middle East and the Islamic world, much of which has been digitised.
The books are very much part of the building’s architecture – the stacks are made of the same material as the floor, and contain ventilation and a technologically innovative mechanical return system. Giving the books pride of place is also a metaphor for the revival of the printed word. “When we started working on Seattle Library [completed in 2004], the book had to prove its own justification – there was almost an assumption that it would disappear,” Koolhaas says. “Now there’s a sense that the survival of the book is not questioned – here, you can see that the digital is integrated to facilitate everything, but we no longer see it as this big thing that might eventually erode [the book].”
The reverence with which OMA has treated the book seems to be matched by the enthusiasm of the library’s users: Sohair Wastawy, QNL's executive director, says that 25 per cent of its collection of 875,000 books have already been borrowed. “I’ve been in the library field for 43 years and I have never heard of that,” she says. This library, she says, fills a gap in Qatari society. “Before, people were mostly just hanging out in malls.”
The comparison with the mall – a central public space in many contemporary Middle Eastern and Asian cities – is apt. With its multiple interconnected functions and all its “wares” on display, the QNL feels very much like a shopping centre. The abundance of seating and social areas mean the library’s users also treat it more like a social arena than a place to simply find and borrow books. There is a certain irony to this, since Koolhaas, in his 2001 essay ‘Junkspace’, wrote about the “mallefication” of our cities through the spread of vast, seamless air-conditioned interior spaces: “Junkspace is what remains after modernisation has run its course, or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernisation is in progress, its fallout […] Modernization had a rational program: to share the blessings of science, universally. Junkspace is its apotheosis, or meltdown”.
But this is a public space without a commercial imperative in a city where little exists. It is also a suggested direction for the future of the library. “In different countries, libraries are having a revival as a place of learning but also a social space, which you see here today – it acts almost like a plaza,” Koolhaas says. The argument is this: the internet may not have killed off the book, but the library needs to be more than a dusty repository of printed matter and hidden corners to curl up in if it is to flourish. It’s not a unique idea: in an attempt to secure their future, libraries the world over been expanding into events, activities and public services – with varying degrees of success.
But, as the first new national library to open this century, such functions are built into the QNL’s very fabric, with spaces devoted to 3D-printing, multimedia studios, a restaurant, a children’s library and play area, games consoles, meeting spaces and conference rooms. A performance venue in the centre of the space is shrouded by a heavy curtain, but can be opened up to draw the rest of the building into the audience, emphasising the centrality of events to the library’s offering – a recent performance of the Qatar Philharmonic attracted more than 600 people. “We were even thinking about having sports events in here,” Koolhaas says.