Tianjin Binhai Library by MVRDV. Is this the library of the future?

Place: Tianjin, Country: China
Architectural Design: MVRDV, Rotterdam (NL), https://www.mvrdv.nl/

Tianjin Binhai Library MVRDV 01

Tianjin Binhai Library, interior view; photo © Ossip van Duivenbode, courtesy of MVRDV.

Tianjin Binhai Library by MVRDV. Is this the library of the future?

A gigantic eye lies in the middle of the futuristic cave-like atrium of MVRDV’s new Tianjin Binhai Library. Completed in 2017, the new 33,700-square-meter / 362,000-square-foot library was built as the centerpiece of a larger urban development project comprising four other cultural buildings in the city of Tianjin, Northern China.

The library is a 5-story introverted building in which a cascade of terraced shelves encompasses a large diaphanous sphere, 21 meters / 69 feet across. Dubbed The Eye, the sphere contains an 82-seat auditorium whose external LED-panel-covered skin transforms into a large multimedia facade cyclically.
The terraced space is the library’s main reading room and book storage area and may contain up to 1,2 million volumes, together with a lounge area for socialization and seating spaces from which to contemplate the jaw-dropping architecture around.

Tianjin Binhai Library MVRDV 04

The atrium of the Tianjin Binhai Library; photo © Ossip van Duivenbode

The main reading room is topped by an oculus-like circular skylight that reinforces the impression that the MVRDV building has something in common with a Baroque church in which the oculus crowns a concave space, as in Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome. *

Borromini Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza

The dome of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza by Francesco Borromini (1642-1660); photo Architas (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Such similarity is further strengthened by another circumstance: like in the Trompe-l’œil optical illusions of which Italian Mannerist and Baroque churches are plenty, the volumes on the upper shelves are actually images printed on aluminum panels, intended to “represent” real books that can’t be there simply because those shelves are inaccessible.

Indeed, the Dutch firm complains that the Tianjin Binhai Library does not completely conform to the original design: “The tight construction schedule forced one essential part of the concept to be dropped: access to the upper bookshelves from rooms placed behind the atrium. This change was made locally and against MVRDV’s advice. It rendered access to the upper shelves impossible. The full vision for the Tianjin Library may yet be realized.”  MVRDV says.

Tianjin Binhai Library MVRDV 07

Tianjin Binhai Library MVRDV fake books 2

The upper shelves do not contain real books but fake ones printed on perforated aluminum panels; photos © Ossip van Duivenbode.

Another difference between the original project and the realized building is that the “The Eye” was initially conceived as a giant spherical mirror aimed to create a complex visual interplay with the architecture of the atrium, while the one realized is a sort of enormous ostrich egg which, when (luckily rarely) mapped with videos and colorful digital patterns, makes the whole atrium vaguely resemble a 1970s disco club.

Tianjin Binhai Library MVRDV rendering

Tianjin Binhai Library MVRDV 03

In MVRDV’s original design, the “Eye” auditorium was wrapped by a mirror ball, while in the built library it is enclosed by a much less fascinating LED-screen-covered multimedia envelope.
Rendering by MVRDV; photo © Ossip van Duivenbode.

Together with the large atrium space, the building also contains secondary reading rooms, educational facilities, book storage, archives, meeting rooms, offices, and a media center.

The concept on which MVDRV’s design was based is that a modern library should be, together with (more than?) a space for silence and introspection, also a place for socialization and sharing.
“The Eye is the center of the library. It ‘hollows out’ the building and creates, out of bookshelves, an environment to sit, to read, to hang out, to climb and to access, to create an organic social space” Winy Maas.

Tianjin Binhai Library MVRDV functional diagram

Tianjin Binhai Library MVRDV book shelves

Functional diagram of the lower part of the atrium and a view of the terraced shelves; images MVRDV and © Ossip van Duivenbode

Overall, though visually outstanding and masterfully modeled, this library confirms a tendency to monumentalism we are currently seeing in many projects of large public buildings, especially in the Far and the Middle East but also in the United States and Europe (see the Library of Birmingham, for example).
Does it really make sense to build in a 12-million-inhabitant megalopolis an enormous library, people will possibly enter more to admire the building than to read books; wouldn’t it be better to create twenty smaller district libraries instead?

The great quality of MVRDV’s architectural design is not in discussion and I am pretty sure that, if fully completed, this building would have got that balance between form and function it partially lacks now. Yet, more than “the library of the future”, as someone defined it, this building looks more like a mausoleum, a colossal funerary monument in memory of the book.

* The Tianjin Binhai Library is plenty of references to the work of architects of the past, especially of the 18th century; from the Theater of Besançon by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux with its famous “Eye” conceptual drawing to which the sphere by MVRDV, framed by the facade eyelid-like opening, is arguably an allusion; to the globe of the Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton by Étienne-Louis Boullée.
In the project by Winy Maas, who supervised the design of the library for MVRDV, we can also see more “pop” elements. I am the only one to whom the terraced atrium evokes the scene of Spielberg’s “Riders of the Lost Ark” in which the fire blasts the Ark of the Covenant’s lid into the sky opening a circular shockwave in the clouds? Or, maybe, Maas’ memory still contains some images of the nuclear tests of the Cold War. I could go on indefinitely, since architecture has always been an interplay between past and present, after all.

Étienne-Louis Boullée, Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton

Étienne-Louis Boullée, Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton, 1784; image Le Salon de la Mappemonde (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Eye drawing Theater Besancon Claude Nicolas Ledoux

Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, “Eye Enclosing the Theatre at Besançon”, c. 1800; siurce: Wikimedia Commons.

Tianjin Binhai Library MVRDV facade

The main facade of the Tianjin Binhai Library (photo © Ossip van Duivenbode)

Tsar bomb explosion

Tianjin Binhai Library MVRDV 02

How much contemporary architecture has been influenced by pop culture? Above: a screenshot from Soviet video footage of the Tsar bomb explosion (1961), and a view of MVRDV’s Tianjin Binhai Library (photo © Ossip van Duivenbode).

Tianjin Binhai Library MVRDV conceptual diagram

Tianjin Binhai Library MVRDV cross-section

Tianjin Binhai Library MVRDV second floor plant

Tianjin Binhai Library, conceptual diagram, longitudinal cross-section, and second-floor plan; images MVRDV

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Tianjin Binhai Library MVRDV 05

Interior views of the library’s main reading room; photos © Ossip van Duivenbode
Unless differently specified; all images are courtesy of MVRDV.

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