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The Bibliotheca Alexandrina has just been handed over by the builder, and will be formally opened in April next year. Government, clients, builders and the architects have generated a most heroic building that celebrates scholarship, history, Africa, and the Mediterranean. The library promises to reinvigorate the city and its culture.

When the results of the competition for the great library of Alexandria were announced in 1989, a few taxis turned up for the ceremony and a dishevelled cosmopolitan circus of young men and women clambered out to be asked 'Where are the architects?'. 'We are', they replied.

From the start, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was an extraordinary project. In 1974, Mahdouh Lofti Diowar, president of the city's university, had the ideal of reviving the almost mythical great library, powerhouse of Hellenic scholarship. The vision was embraced by the Egyptian government, and enough funds were gathered to launch the international competition, which received 524 valid submissions - perhaps the largest entry ever.

It was won by a group of young architects who came together in Los Angeles. Two had met in Frank Israel's office: the American Craig Dykers and Austrian Christoph Kapeller. They decided to set up a team and were joined by Kjetil Thorsen, a Norwegian who had studied with Kapeller in Graz under people like Gunther Domenig. Thorsen brought other Norwegian colleagues with whom he had set up Snohetta (Snow Hut), [1] a small practice in Oslo, Weeks of intensive work in rooms hired cheaply from an old person s home resulted in a design of extraordinary power which practically jumped off the competition drawings.

A huge disc appeared to be rising from the south over the Mediterranean. It smiled on the city's harbour, which is guarded by the castle made of the remains of the Pharos, the unbelievably tall lighthouse that was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Enthusiastic supporters of Snohetta's scheme likened its figure to that of the Sun God Ra. The architects were rather surprised at the analogy, but were happy to accept it, because it became a powerful part of the world-wide publicity campaign to generate construction funds.

Amazingly, and with great dedication, the government of the poor country pursued the ideal. Mme Mubarak, the wife of the president, became the chairwoman of trustees. About US $220 million had to be raised. There was an immediate response from Arab countries. The remainder was found by the Egyptians, with a little advice from UNESCO. Some Western states provided help in particular ways, for instance training for librarians and for making particular elements of the project.

Problems of funding and bureaucracy were immense, but they have been overcome. Now the building is finished (though not yet occupied by its books - it will have a soft opening in October). It is a triumph of idealism and grit. After the initial shock of meeting the young designers, the Egyptian authorities clenched their teeth, and allowed Snohetta to get on with the job, without demanding a more experienced partner (as happens so often when young architects win competitions). Snohetta chose the Egyptian firm Hamza Associates with whom to set up a joint venture project. Mamdouh Hamza solved the problems of stabilizing the huge building (necessarily by its section heavily loaded to the back) preventing it from rotating in the soft watery shales of the Nile delta. His firm took over all engineering aspects of the work and became local collaborators with the architects.

For a long time, many of us in the West thought that the project had failed. A very poor country, an idealistic project, an undefined financing system, international political complications, untried architects all looked as if the flare on the architectural horizon would he forgotten as quickly as the flash of a meteor. In fact, client, architects, authorities and contractors were working and building.

Ismail Serageldin, [2] Director of the Library, says that it must be a 'centre of excellence'. Many criticisms have suggested that the project is far too expensive for a poor country because it diverts funds from the indigent to building monuments to the literate. Serageldin ripostes that no-one can predict exactly what will happen if you set up a centre of excellence, which can cost a very small percentage of a nation's GDP. He looks at Indian experience, where high levels of specialization in programming have been able to build an amazingly profitable economic complex of software production that stretches from South Asia to Silicon Valley. He argues that the new library could do the same, but in completely unpredictable ways. It will have an intimate relationship with the university across the road, the institution which gave it birth: both must benefit.

But 'it can't be everything for everybody, or else it will be nothing for anybody'. Serageldin has four priorities: first, to be a window of the world on Egypt; second, to be a window of the world from Egypt (focusing initially on the Mediterranean, Africa and Arab civilization); third, to be a library for the digital age (of course no librarian can hope to outstare electronics with paper, but they all have to adopt creative strategies between them). Serageldin's fourth priority is to make Alexandria a world centre of debate. He suggests that Egypt, Alexandria in particular, should be a crossroads of dialogue between East and West, Africa and Europe. High in discussion, he hopes, will be relationships of north and south cultures, particularly the ethics of science and technology - appropriate in a city in which many of the foundations of European and Muslim civilization were laid out by people like Euclid, Aristarchus, Eratosthenes and Archimedes in the first library, which was founded in 288 BC by Ptolemy I (Soter), the Macedonian general who seized Egypt from the decapitated empire of Alexander.

It is hoped to be a centre of academic excellence, but the building has already been a school for building and construction management. Jack Thomson, project manger of the construction joint venture of Balfour Beatty and Arab Contractors says that the whole operation has been a teaching programme. People who have worked on the site have gone on to take important positions in other firms and in government departments. New skills, technologies and materials were needed for Egypt's most important grand projet: the building became a learning mechanism.

Its Ra figure seems simple and the section that functionally dominates the parti is very clear and practical. But realization of such straightforwardness had to be carried out with great persistence, from architects, consultants, clients and builders alike. The wonderful stepped volume of the reading room is undoubtedly one of the finest spatial experiences of our times.

The Pharos was phallic and uni-functional. Alexandria's new monument is just as powerful, but it is gentle, enveloping, generous, welcoming and multivalent. Those young lads who stumbled out of the cabs more than a decade ago have grown up in their building. Now, at last it is there in concrete, glass and metal. We shall review it in detail next month, P.D.

(1.) So called because they had an office in a building under a dance hall called Galdhoppigen (the highest mountain in the country Snahetta was on the way to the top.

(2.) Serageldin trained as an architect at Cairo and Harvard, was vice president of the world Bank until July 2000. His work has been largely to do with development in the Third Word.

Photographs: Peter Davey


'Provence is a country to which I am always returning, next week, next year, any day now, as soon as I can get on to a train.'

When Elizbeth David wrote those evocative words (in French Provincial Cooking, first published in 1960), the journey from London to the Midi took the better part of a day. The Paris-Marseilles leg alone was a 10-hour marathon, for which the best preparation, perhaps, was a leisurely dinner at the Gare de Lyon beneath the incomparable frescoed ceiling of the Train Bleu.

Since the recent opening of the Lyons-Marseilles section of the TGV service, it is theoretically possible to board a Eurostar train in Waterloo and arrive six and a half hours later on the shores of the Mediterranean. Of course, rail travel, however rapid (300kph) or however generously subsidized (Paris-Marseilles return, first class fare, [pound]60) is never going to be able to compete on entirely level terms with budget air travel. What it can offer is le style and le confort, and, of course, the sensation of tres grande vitesse.

It would be stretching a point to claim that at 300kph the loudest sound is the tinkle of ice cubes in one's glass of Pernod - indeed refreshments of any description are mysteriously hard to come by on TGV trains, but the atmosphere of calm and stability is a reassuring contrast to the panorama unreeling outside. No attempt has been made, mercifully, to simulate some of the less agreeable features of air travel. On the contrary, Roger Tallon's urbane interiors, with their generous high backed seats and restrained vocabulary of soft leather and grey flannel, seem to be trying to provide an experience as far removed from the indignities of bucket shop air transport as possible.

The TGV service accounts for nearly a quarter of all train journeys provided by the SNCF. It has its own culture, its own dedicated track and its own characteristic works of architecture and civil engineering. From the train, the scope and scale of the bridges, viaducts, tunnels, are difficult to assess: with Gaullist imperiousness the TGV seems to pass through, over, or across all physical barriers, but at least when the train pulls into a station, it is possible to get out and examine the architecture.

There are three new stations on the TGV Mediterranee network: Valence, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence; and accompanied by the head of the architectural team, Jean-Marie Duthilleul, and his assistant, Etienne Tricaud, we visited all three on a 12-hour round trip from Paris (which, it goes without saying, also encompassed an excellent and leisurely lunch).

Architecturally, the three station buildings belong to the same blood group but are also very different in character. Valence, straddling a regional line, offers an immensely long, tilting rectangular gallery supported on inclined struts. At Avignon, a low banana-shaped (torus curve) hall provides a shield from the mistral on one side and from the burning rays of the Mediterranean sun on the other, while at Aix - perhaps the most satisfying of the three - the structure of the station building evokes the city's famous tree-lined boulevard, le Cours Mirabeau, as well as offering spectacular views of the Mont Sainte Victoire.

It would be possible to quarrel with the standard of some of the workmanship here, especially in the complex curvature of Avignon, but this is a cultured trio of buildings, impressively landscaped and executed with great confidence and sensitivity. It vaut le voyage.

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Title Annotation:library in Alexandria, Egypt/train stations in France
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Aug 1, 2001
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