The ancient library of Alexandria contained the greatest collection of writings in antiquity. When it was destroyed in the 5th century A.D., a vast trove of ancient wisdom was lost forever.
In 1989 the Egyptian state announced an architectural competition for the design of a new extensive Library of Alexandria. Some 650 teams of architects submitted plans. It was quite a surprise when Snøhetta – a small Norwegian firm that had never won a competition and had constructed few large-scale buildings – was awarded first prize. The new Library of Alexandria, or Bibliotheca Alexandrina, opened in 2002 and is widely viewed as one of the most important architectural works of recent decades.
The library is magnificent yet simple. In its essence the building is a diagonally-sliced, standing cylinder whose geometric clarity has much in common with the great edifices of Egyptian antiquity. A straight line piercing the library’s cylindrical form is actually a pedestrian bridge, providing access from the University of Alexandria to the south. The bridge crosses a heavily trafficked street to reach the second floor of the library and proceeds to a public plaza on the building’s north side, towards the sea.
West of this bridge, most of the cylinder is notched out, creating a void that is the site of the library’s main entrance. The entrance to the library faces the front doors of an older conference hall, and seems to show deference to this neighbouring building. Between the two buildings is a plaza decked with paving stones and, sunken into the plaza, a vast sphere comprising a planetarium.
An oblique slice has been cut away from the cylinder-shaped building. Normally, this would form an elliptical surface, but the architects have started with an elliptical cylinder that is tilted away from the vertical. Thus, their ground floor area and their inclined roof plane form perfect circles. The library’s tilted walls all point north to the sea, as does the slope of the roof. While a true cylinder is a static form, the library’s irregularities give it motion – an impression that is reinforced by the 10-story building’s exposed vertical reach from 10 m below ground to 32 m above it.
The south-facing wall of the cylinder is clad in granite slabs that were split from huge blocks, not sawn. Their surface is uneven, with soft contours. These granite plates are inscribed with alphabetic symbols from around the world. The sun’s passage across the sky and the reflections of electric lighting off an adjacent water basin produce a dynamic play of shadows on the carved symbols, evoking ancient Egyptian temple walls. The library’s vast central hall – a half circle with a diameter of 160 m – is a powerful room. The curved wall is made of concrete elements with open vertical joints, while the straight wall is clad with polished black stone from Zimbabwe. The floor is divided into seven terraced levels that descend northward, towards the Mediterranean.