Public Realm in a Design Portfolio — Selected works by Snøhetta, Part One

INTRODUCTION
Snøhetta was selected for this portfolio study. The Snøhetta portfolio exhibits originality and versatility. In addition to signing with prestigious international clients, Snøhetta has the rare honor of designing for the general public in their native region, architecturally and in other forms. The Snøhetta portfolio is important to architecture because includes several examples of realized (completed) trans-disciplinary design work utilized by the public for formal and informal occasions. Snøhetta is a prize-winning firm, with international architecture awards that prove excellence with a great scope of architectural priorities. For this series of Architectural Comment, the selected Snøhetta works are the Alexandria Library (Bibliotheca Alexandrina); Norwegian National Opera and Ballet; Norwegian State Railways brand name and visual identity for Vy; and Design proposal for Norwegian bank notes. In a single portfolio, these select works are noteworthy repertoire within trans-disciplinary design. The selected works include a variety of applications and programs for public use.

© Gerald Zugmann
The Alexandria Library, photo © Gerald Zugmann

PART 1, Bibliotheca Alexandrina
Tangible connection to antiquity and great civilization may be limited in consideration to a geographic proximity. In some way, the historical patrimony of the Great Library of Alexandria as the collections of codices and assembly of scholars is rebuilt near the Corniche in Alexandria, Egypt. A new building design for a great library with lineage is an honor. Snøhetta, a design firm, won the design competition for a contemporary library in Alexandria ‒ home to specialized libraries, a depository library, academic research centers, museums, and exhibitions.

© Gerald Zugmann
The Alexandria Library, photo © Gerald Zugmann

Monumentality is a grand scale of public architecture that serves a great common purpose and is open for exhibition regularly. There is a soft shadow on the surface of a cylinder where it looks like an edge. A scroll would curve just the same and be pliable. The stone façade is a design of courses inscribed with signs from 10,000 years of history. The exterior of this building is a public sculpture of linguistic marks. The depository library, a place of knowledge, resides within a stone wall that is an artwork of accumulation.

© Snøhetta, architect
The Alexandria Library, architectural drawings © Snøhetta, architect

Historical acknowledgements etched onto buildings that serve society will include marks and symbols to be read and understood; they may dignify other cultures or similar thoughts. Marks such as letters are without a statement, as they are the simplest elements of many languages.

The influence of classical geometry in architecture is clearly observable in the new library of Alexandria. Monumentality of the exterior mass and surface encircle an architectural interior with a multi-use programme of exhibitions, research areas, school, libraries, and supporting spaces.

© Gerald Zugmann
The Alexandria Library, photo © Gerald Zugmann

From the exterior, the break in the circle is a functional geometric sign for a main lobby with plenty of traffic. The rectilinear indentation on the conical surface is a guiding standard for shape and arrange the spatial uses, including regulated passes and vertical circulation. The arrangement of the dense spatial program is rectilinearly efficient. The reading room is the more publicly visited part of the library interior. Its immense functional area is high-ceilinged and spacious, in companion to the exterior scale of the main library building.

© Snøhetta, architect
The Alexandria Library, architectural drawing © Snøhetta, architect

Ambulatory space is fit throughout the main library. There is an open-air elevated open-air walkway that cuts through the inscribed stone wall near the Corniche road and passes through the rectangularly indented portico. The existing walkway might be an architectural citation to a translated description of the destroyed ancient library passed to us from Ptolemic times. and makes its way towards a horizon that seems beyond the printed plans, passing the planetarium, theater of the stars and light.

© Gerald Zugmann
The Alexandria Library, photos © Gerald Zugmann

Geometry and projections are knowledge that have contributed to the world that is built today. If we remember conic sections that create the ellipse, there is possibility of  understanding the engineering of this monumental library that remembers its legendary predecessor. The architectural section is the drawing that cuts through the ground plane. Here, it indicates the organization and magnitude of the programme. Nine distinct floor levels can be counted inside the section drawing of this enormous construction.

© Snøhetta, architect
The Alexandria Library, architectural drawings © Snøhetta, architect
© Gerald Zugmann
The Alexandria Library, photo © Gerald Zugmann

A dedicated reader of architectural drawings will at least take the time to notice a great scale of the common chamber that is illuminated by an enormous surface of skylights. It is like a luminaire that enlightens within itself. Below the light permeable roof is a grid of structure, probably unrecognized by library patrons. Cement finished columns, that support a fenestrated roof, rise high above the common space. Economically sculpted capitals suggest a hint of foliage motif in the styled chamfer of the prismatic column head.  These columns directly lift the illuminating canted roof.

The main library of Alexandria is open to the general public receiving 1.5 million visitors annually in the grand space with stepped and cantilevered terraces. The open circulation of library patrons is amidst the stacks and study desks throughout the main library. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina holds more than 1.6 million books and documents, with the capability of nearly doubling its storage. The reading area is a cascade of decks beneath a ceiling of folded apertures is naturally lit by day.

© Gerald Zugmann
The Alexandria Library, photo © Gerald Zugmann

The most frequently visited public room of this building is the most sublime and inspiring space in the library. The great reading room stores volumes of paginated knowledge and provides modern furniture for some of the world’s most dedicated knowledge seekers. Circulation and movement of information and knowledge continue to be the tradition of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

During the Information Age, a great time of progress and technological development, architect Snøhetta successfully answered a call for a new library of Alexandria. The story of today’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina should become an internationally memorable architectural competition simply because of the history of the place and its cultural purpose. The first director of the universal library was Demetrius Phalereus during a period that this author could dub as a possible “first internationalism” located along the Mediterranean Sea, where trade had been prosperous as custom and toll. Activity, symbolism, and visitation together are practical considerations for the design. The scale of this project’s scope is immediately evident in the architectural imagery, not requiring quantities.

© Gerald Zugmann
The Alexandria Library, photo © Gerald Zugmann

Snøhetta won the Bibliotheca Alexandrina design competition which was then engineered and constructed years after. It is an unsurpassable architectural accomplishment that is part of the history of civilization, where cultures have enduringly crossed paths. The client organization and its vested authorities make this work truly publicly significant with their vision, mission, and commitments. The formal architectural competition procedure and design selection may now be considered as ceremonial events that composed a prologue for the library’s full scope of activity. Recognition or winning a competition of this caliber is a promotion to an elite echelon of the architecture world. Participation is something to be thanked and congratulated. The advancement of a design portfolio promotes the architect. Great work is long-lasting and memorable. Knowledge makes it possible.

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Written by CPG

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CREDIT
Snøhetta Hamza Consortium, architect. Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Bibliotheca Alexandrina, client. Snøhetta (Oslo), architecture, landscape, interior. Hamza Associates (Cairo), civil, structure, mechanical, electrical, architecture engineers. Jorunn Sannes (Oslo), fine artist for stone wall. Schumann Smith Ltd. (UK), project management, cost, specifications. Lichtdesign (Köln), lighting design. Multiconsult (Oslo), acoustics. Warrington Fire Research (UK), fire and life safety. Stewart Helms (UK), security. Rodio Trevi (Italy), Arab Contractors (Egypt), Balfour Beatty (UK), general contractors by phase. Alexandria, EG, c. 2001.
Gerald Zugmann, photographer.
REFERENCE
Alamuddin, Hana. Bibliotheca Alexandrina: Alexandria, Egypt, 2004 On Site Review Report. The Aga Khan Report for Architecture. 2004.
Aman, Mohammed M. “The New Bibliotheca Alexandrina: A Link in the Historical Chain of Cultural Continuity. Occasional Paper 3.” School of Information Science. University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Jan 1990.
Zahran, Mohsen. The New Bibliotheca Alexandrina: Reflections on a Journey of Achievements. Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Alexandrina, Egypt, 2007.
http://uil.unesco.org/partner/library/bibliotheca-alexandrina-egypt. Accessed August 12, 2019
https://www.bibalex.org. Accessed August 14, 2019

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