The Sharjah Investment and Development Authority commissioned the building in part because UNESCO had selected the city to be the 2019 World Book Capital, an annual international festival promoting books and literacy that first kicked off in Madrid in 2001. (The 2021 title belongs to Tbilisi, Georgia, while Guadalajara, Mexico, will enjoy the bibliophilic honor next year.)
The project was first formally unveiled in April 2019 during the midst of Sharjah’s World Book Capital festivities and was slated for completion in 2020.
The House of Wisdom is about six miles from the center of Sharjah as part of an under-development cultural quarter that officials hope will boost the profile of the city, which is the third most populous in the UAE following Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Sharjah—also the name of the emirate that is the capital of— is widely considered as the cultural capital of the UAE. Earlier this week, the library, which the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority describes as a “living, breathing project, a witness to the cultural accomplishments of the Emirate, and an inspiration to coming generations,” hosted an International Women’s Day event.
Given its arid location, the nearly 140,000-square-foot concrete and steel building features plenty of passive cooling features. Inside, moveable bamboo screens can be opened up by visitors to maintain visual access to the garden or shut closed to minimize glare. On the exterior, an almost 50-foot-wide cantilevered overhanging roof shields the facade from the hot sun, while perforated aluminum screens filter out light, even towards dusk. To create large, column-free floorplates, the architects designed four cores to support the roof, and two of the four cores contain staircases between the first and second floors.
Visitors entering the building House of Wisdom pass through a double-height reception area with a central courtyard that brings daytime into the building’s core. The first floor features a children’s play area, a cafe, and an unusual amenity: a machine that prints and binds books on demand. On the upper floor, there are reading pods that are suspended above the courtyard, reading lounges, an area for women, and a prayer room.
Two gardens round out the program. The more formal and geometric north garden hosts The Scroll, a sculpture by the British artist Gerry Judah. According to a Foster + Partners press release, the tall and looping piece is a riff on ancient Arabic scrolls.
“The House of Wisdom in Sharjah is a forward-looking conception of what a library should be in the 21st century—embracing a digital future while playing a crucial role as a community hub for learning, underpinned by innovation and technology,” elaborated Gerard Evenden, a head of studio at Foster + Partners, in a statement. “The straight, minimalist lines of the building complement the dunes of the desert, set within a lush landscape. The House of Wisdom is set to be an oasis for the local community at the heart of a new cultural district.”