Snøhetta is no stranger to designing novel libraries, whether it be for a former U.S. president, a swooping stone book repository for Temple University in Pennsylvania, or the crystalline, railroad-crossing Calgary Central Library. The latest addition to the impressive roster is the new Beijing sub-centre library, the first building in China to use a self-supporting glass facade.
Snøhetta won the international design competition for the library in 2018, and construction began in 2020. Now, with all of the stem-like columns erected, installation of the exterior glass, some of which soars to up to 52 feet tall uninterrupted, is underway and the library is slated to open sometime later this year.
Instead of a cloistered box segmented into different circulation and reading areas, Snøhetta and local firm ECADI (the East China Architectural Design & Research Institute) have designed a singular internal “landscape” that evokes both the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, and the work of Japanese architect Junya Ishigama.
The sculpted “reading landscape,” as Snøhetta described it in the project announcement, creates an undulating internal topography with a “valley” carved from large free-flowing seating staircases at its heart. Aside from creating a public meeting space, the valley has the added benefit of creating a central north-south circulation path.
Instead of possessing any designated sections or reading rooms, visitors will be able to stop at any point while traveling across the library and sit in semi-privacy, whether at a desk or across the amphitheater-like central stairs. This isn’t a library for those who would prefer cloistered meeting rooms— Snøhetta stated that the intention was to blend the public and private, and readers will still be able to survey the rest of the building even when sitting alone thanks to a lack of internal dividers.
Of course, it would be hard to ignore the slender white columns that support the frenetic, canopy-like roof. Apart from providing structural support, the columns will contain climate control, rainwater routing, lighting, and “acoustic comfort” elements, distributing the required technological components across the interior while also shunting them out of sight. Unlike the orderly Johnson Wax Headquarters, the columns will rise to meet a lily pad-like arrangement of ceiling panels and lend the appearance of a grove, allowing sunlight to penetrate the middle of the building.
Up top, the entire roof will be covered in photovoltaic panels, and the structure will overhang the glass walls for the entire length of the building to both regulate solar gain and create shaded gathering spaces outside. Although most of the building will be wrapped in tall, unbroken panes of insulated glass to entice passersby inside, the southern and western facades will be wrapped in a metal screen at the base that will act as an active sunshade.
Snøhetta is touting the library’s sustainability bona fides, and that includes locally-sourced materials (including the wood used across the interior), and the use of modular components for the roof and columns, cutting down on the customization required.