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In an age dominated by fashion and style, the Great Library of Alexandria has been created by exploring function with rigour and humanity. Designers and client have made an evocative and appropriate successor of the great precedent.

Alexandria was the focus of the Hellenic world, by far the largest city before the rise of Rome: the Greek-speaking world's greatest entrepot and its intellectual powerhouse. Its Great Library was a cross between book repository, university, museum and natural history laboratory, including a botanical garden and menagerie. In it studied Archimedes, Euclid, Eratosthenes (who made the first accurate measurement of the circumference of the earth) and Hero (who invented the first steam engine). Jewish scriptures were translated into the Greek Septuagint to become the basis for the Old Testament, and the poet Callimachus invented the basis of classification of knowledge that still informs all librarianship. Founded a few decades after the city itself was laid out by Alexander in 331 BC, the library at its height contained 700 000 books (manuscript scrolls).

Such a huge institution took a long time to decay. Parts of it were accidentally burned in the civil war between Caesar and Mark Anthony, [1] more was destroyed in the chaos of third century imperial decline. Final destruction was at the end of the fourth century, when Egypt had become part of the Eastern Empire ruled by Orthodox emperors in Constantinople who were increasingly hostile to Classical pagan culture. The daughter of the last librarian was torn to pieces by a fanatical Christian mob in 415 AD. When Amr lbn El Aas arrived in the seventh century, probably nothing was left of the library, nor of Cleopatra's huge palace. [2]

Nearly 1200 years later, when Napoleon arrived to try to conquer Egypt, Alexandria was a ragged fishing port with 4000 inhabitants. Although the French were chased out by British and local forces in 1802, it was their money that largely built the new city in the nineteenth century; it was modern and Mediterranean-oriented, in contrast to Cairo, almost medieval, inward turned and decaying. Much of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century city of Forster, Cavafy and Durrell remains near the oval eastern harbour, the mouth of which is still guarded by Fort Qaitbey, built in the base of the fabulous Pharos lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

Now, a wonder of the modern world has emerged across the harbour on the northern shore of Africa. In 1974, the president of the University of Alexandria, Mamdough Lotfi Diowar, made a proposal for reviving the Great Library. With amazing vision and tenacity, the Egyptian government seized the idea and set up an organisation to realise it. An architectural competition was held in 1989. It attracted 524 entries from 52 countries, and the result astonished the world. The winner turned out to be Snohetta, a young Oslo-based international practice that had scarcely built anything substantial, and was known only in Norway and to small number of overseas enthusiasts. [3] Overseas money enabled the building to take off, with Arab countries from Morocco to Iraq giving basic funding. [4] The Egyptian government provided the difference, and it will bear much of the responsibility for maintaining the operation.

The basic design was deceptively simple. A huge inclined silver disk appears to be rising over the sea. It is the roof of the reading room, one of the most impressive public spaces of our time. Its circular plan shows it to be descended from a distinguished lineage of libraries stretching back to Sydney Smirke's reading room for the British Museum and Erik Gunnar Asplund's Stockholm City Library, but it is bigger than these, and completely different in concept. As the Norwegian critic Ulf Grdnvold has pointed out, [5] the earlier libraries are control-centred, with librarians occupying the focus of the plan, in much the way that the overseer of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon was to be found surveying the inmates of the ideal prison from his central dwelling.

At Alexandria, the diameter is 160m, and the floor rises in a series of 14 terraces that offer space for more than 2000 readers, making the reading room the largest in the world. But instead of being forced into strictly regimented radii, readers will be able to choose from a great variety of sitting areas so that each can have a sense of personal space within the awesome 172 000[m.sup.3]. Human scale is further given by the grove of slender concrete columns that grows out of the gently cascading interior landscape. These have capitals that resemble abstracted forms of ancient Egyptian lotus-bud columns, but the architects deny any attempt to make direct analogies with the past. The form of the precast capitals is, it suggests, derived directly from the problems of making structural and services connections with the primary beams and ducts of the roof structure. [6]

Equally, the architects argue that they never contemplated the great disk of the roof as an emblem of the ancient Egyptian sun god Ra. That interpretation was imposed by the jury and critics [7] - the form, the architects argue, is generated by functional requirements. The basic structural grid of 9.6 x 14.4m is determined by standard book storage requirements. The section is generated by the need to have a large amount of controlled stack space, as well as all the reading spaces and open-access shelves. Each level stretches back below those above it, so the stacks are under the upper terraces, yet readily accessible, obviating the need for elaborate mechanical book delivery systems. In all, there is space for half a million open-access books, with the possibility of a further eight million in closed stacks.

The sectional 16.08[degrees] angle of the roof derives from the 4.15m floor-to-floor height of the terraces combined with the planning grid. In effect, the disk is rotated along a chord at ground level a third of the diameter between its lowest point (12m below ground) and its highest (32m above). Partial sinking of the building originated in planning height restrictions (now apparently defunct). But as a result, the disk rises gently over the corniche. Its huge dimensions and noble simplicity are only gradually appreciated as you see it against the jumble of commercial seafront developments that spread for miles on both sides of the centre.

In form, the roof is unlike any that has ever been made. The rectangular bays of the planning grid are clearly expressed, and a diagonal is drawn across each, forming two triangles. The diagonals form the lines of clerestory windows, [8] created by pushing one triangle of each bay down in section below its pair. All clerestories face due north and are further protected from direct sunlight by eyebrow-like laminated sunscreens of safety glass. North light is reflected upwards from the bent aluminium cladding of the lower triangles through the clerestory windows, and then re-reflected and diffused down into the great space from the soffits of the upper triangles. Diagonals, bent triangles and eyebrows pattern and moderate the enormous scale of the roof, making it comprehensible and urbane. Internally, soft, cool grey luminance is enlivened by splashes of blue and green light from little glass blocks let into the roof. These small tinted pools move around the reading room as the sun crosses the heavens, making the space into a giant internal sundial, and animating it with colours long important to Egyptian and Muslim culture.

If the circular roof is in effect one of the two major facades, the other is the great impervious south-facing wall that protects the building from the sun. Its complex slope is generated by the toroidal geometry necessitated by linking the circular plan to the circular inclined roof. [9] Totally imperforate, the wall is clad in grey granite into which are incised examples of all the world's written communications from runes to barcodes, renaissance scripts to braille. The granite slabs, [10] from a quarry deep in the southern Egyptian desert, have riven -- not sawn -- faces, and their rough texture, reflected in a moat-like pool, seems almost medieval and fortress-like in comparison with the shining sophistication of the aluminium roof.

So far, the building is both grand and simple in concept, but compromises had to be made. The client demanded that a large and ungainly '60s conference centre to the south-west of the site be retained, partly because it was a large capital investment, and because it was the place where Egypt was received back into communication with its Arab neighbours after its rapprochement with Israel had made it a pariah. The presence of the conference centre necessitated a cut in the toroidal form so that a public piazza serving both old and new buildings could be created between them. [11]

In the original design (which is very close to what has been built), a high-level walkway was driven north-west from the university to the seashore straight through the whole design beside the long flank of the cut. Most of the promenade has been built, but it stops short of the corniche, because the Governor of Alexandria is opposed to bridges across the busy road. So the affair terminates tamely in a lookout. It is to be hoped that the Governor will make an exception, and allow the complex to be linked over the busy road to the harbour park that is to be created on land at present occupied by the military. But the long line of the walkway does serve the purpose of formally anchoring the spherical planetarium into the composition. The sphere [12] hovers over a glazed pit, in which a museum is being created; a separate entrance leads down to both planetarium and museum from the podium. Lines on the sphere are perhaps intended to be abstractions of longitude. For me, they rather distort perceptions of the sph ere as a perfect Euclidean form, although they light dramatically at night, and relate the ball to the huge tennis racket next door.

Turning back along the piazza, you are faced by the vertical seaward-looking wall made by the cut in the torold. Behind it are the cafeteria and, above it, the main administrative offices. For me, this is the least successful part of the building. Clearly, the architects were concerned to show that, here, their heavily protected toroidal creature had been dissected to reveal its soft innards and their inner life. Sadly, the proposition does not work because the dark glass that has to be used to cut down heat gain and glare is almost opaque by day, and its membranes are revealed as no more than rather banal semi-opaque curtain walls. It might have been better to have used some form of brise-soleil to modify external light, so giving the walls of the cut more detailed scale.

The main entrance is through the impassive glass wall, nearly opposite the much more grandiose entry of the old conference centre. Once through the membrane, you come to a tall and rather empty galleried foyer with, to the right, stairs up to the cafeteria, young people's library and library school and, to the left, a lecture theatre for orientating visitors. Straight ahead are the unpretentious entrance doors to the vast space, which is gradually revealed as you pass the single-storey-high reception and security area [13] and come to a triangular viewing platform that overlooks the whole volume.

The grey grove of columns orders the space above the gently falling terraces with their clusters of tables and bookshelves. Opposite, the terraces curve as they start a swirling movement that echoes the arc of the wall and prevents regimentation. To the right, the smooth white volumes of two group study rooms hover in the highest part of the great volume. The grey of the walls and columns sets the calm tone, relieved by glimpses out over the corniche and sea, by the green and blue splashes of light and by the warmth of the wood floors and furniture. Calm is emphasised by silence, [14] and by the equable temperature. [13] Extraordinarily, in an age that devotedly pursues borrowed image and emphasises style, the magnificent place has been achieved by rigorous, humane and poetic exploration of function. It awaits its users. [16] Will it work? Ismail Serageldin, director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, is convinced that the library will help to restore the city to its ancient position at the cultural crossroads b etween east and west, north and south, past and present. He wants it to be a window on the world for Egypt, and a window on Egypt for the world. He is convinced that it must be a library for the digital age, but most importantly, it should be a focus of world cultural debate. Collection policy should stress the ancient library, the city, the country and the continent, but the ethics of science and technology should be key. [17] Yet, he says, 'it can't be everything for everybody, or else it will be nothing for anybody'.

How can the expense be justified when so many Egyptians live in poverty? Serageldin suggests a zoological analogy. 'There is two per cent difference between the DNA of a chimpanzee and a human being.' The library, he believes, must be a 'centre of excellence' that will make a similar difference between a poor society and one rich, both economically and culturally. If Serageldin and the designers have their way, the great silver disk rising over the sea will illuminate Egypt--and the world.

(1.) Augustus annexed Egypt to the empire in 30 BC, at the same time decreeing that Roman citizens should not visit the province for fear that they would be corrupted by the luxuriant moral climate. St. Mark is supposed to have brought Christianity to Egypt in 40 AD, and the province became so christianised that many thousands of Christian Copts were massacred by the pagan emperor Diocletian in the third century.

(2.) The Muslims disliked the city (though they were welcomed by most Copts as liberators from the dogmatic rule of Constantinople), and they moved the capital to Cairo, then virtually unknown.

(3.) At that stage, Snohetta was a co-operative with very young Norwegian, US and Austrian members, and the design wan evolved in Los Angeles, where Craig Dykers (US) and Austrian Christoph Kapeller were working in Frank Israel's office. They decided to set up a team, and asked Kjetil Thorsen, a Norwegian who had studied with Kapeller in Gratz and had a small practice in Oslo, to join them; he went over with several Norwegian colleagues. Now, the practice is more conventional, with Dykers, Kapeller and Thorsen as partners.

(4.) Costs of phase one (foundations and lower structure) are estimated to be US$59 million, and the second stage, now completed, $158 million. In total, $96.5 million came from outside the country ($65 million from Arab countries). Unesco helped organise the appeal and provided support but little cash. Some Western governments are providing help in kind (for instance, the French government has set up a librarian training programme).

(5.) In an unpublished paper

(6.) The cylindrical columns (700mm in diameter, and up to 16.5m long) are beautifully poured in-situ, and bear on to a piled raft. Ground water is very high and the substrata unstable Nile muds, shales and sands, so the whole building has a tendency to overturn backwards to the south because of its eccentric loading. A concrete diaphragm wall, 160m in diameter, descends to sandstone 35m below ground. Geotechnical works were designed with Hamza Associates of Cairo, with whom Snohetta set up a joint venture partnership, Snohetta Hamza, to run the whole operation, The columns carry the concrete frame bearing the waffle floors, and rise to the channelled precast roof beams, which also act as service ducts. The whole in-situ structure is monolithic and has no movement joints.

(7.) In weak moments, the architects admit that the great silver disk did sometimes seem to have some resemblances to the moon.

(8.) Clerestories am double glazed, with an anti-UV coating, and gas between an outer toughened layer and an inner laminated one.

(9.) The simplest way to imagine a toroid into tie one end of a thread to a ring, and the other to a pin. Using the pin as the center, ran the ring round it in a circle, keeping it vertical and radial. The carving space described by the ring is a toroid. If the library had been cylindrical, the 16.08[degrees] cut would, of course, have made the roof into an ellipse. Piano and Rice used toroidal geometry on Kansai airport (AR November 1994).

(10.) Materials have been chosen to satisfy the client requirement that the building shall last for at least 200 years.

(11.) The conference centre and library am linked under the piazza, so the two can be used together.

(12.) The 18m diameter sphere has a steel structure clad in precast glass fibre-reinforced panels supported on two steel lattice bridges.

(13.) The area is part of a service strip that runs up the whole plan along the line of the cut in the toroid opposite the conference centra. The strip contains librarians' offices, the International School for Informational Studies, the music and audio-visual departments, lifts and so on.

(14.) Effects of the hard surfaces and curved walls are mitigated by absorption in the ceilings and terrace edges. The precast panels of the perimeter wall are pierced to expose absorptive material behind. And, of coarse, people will add their own absorption.

(15.) Air-conditioning ductwork runs behind the inner precast cladding and the outer wall and within the channels in the main roof members. The designers believe that because of the high degree of shading and thermal mass, and the fast that the lower levels are considerably below ground level, the volume's temperature should be tolerable even after a 24-hour collapse of the air-conditioning system at the height of summer.

(16.) There will be a soft opening in October, and a formal inauguration next spring.

(17.) Them have been questions in the lay press about the contents of the great building. Serageldin points out that to start with, it will receive much of the university library, and it will be able to look after many important specialist collections (often in manuscript) owned by impoverished institutions. And, of course, there will be setting-up donations from many sources.
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Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Sep 1, 2001

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