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Contemporary cultural centre contains spectacular atrium with contoured book shelving system reaching to the ceiling

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The eyeball-shaped auditorium within Tianjin Binhai Library is framed by an eye-shaped aperture in the double facade’s external wood louvres

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With the rise and ensuing saturation of the internet age, the need for libraries as conduits of information has seemed under threat. As it turns out, quite the opposite applies if this sculptural book depository in China is anything to go by.

Tianjin Binhai Library – designed by Danish architecture firm MVRDV in association with local architects Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute – is a 33,700m2 library and cultural centre that certainly doesn’t lack public presence.

The library has a luminous globe auditorium, resembling an eyeball, as a centrepiece of the open, three-level search hall at the heart of the five floor building. A round aperture in the floorplates above spills natural light directly onto the sphere.

And the giant central atrium is a spectacular sight in its own right – walled in dramatic floor-to-ceiling cascading bookcases. The angles and curves of the space are meant to stimulate different uses of the space, such as walking, meeting, discussing and of course reading. The capacious library has the capacity to hold a staggering 1.2 million books.

The terraced bookshelves create an interior, topographical, landscape with contour lines, or shelves, that also reach out and wrap around the façade, says Winy Maas, co-founder of MVRDV.


“In this way, the stepped bookshelves inside are represented on the outside – with each shelf
corresponding to an external louvre. The louvres filter excessive sunlight, while still creating a bright and evenly lit interior.”

As eye-catching from the outside as the inside, an oval opening punches through the side of the building, ‘visually propped open’ by the eyeball auditorium seen in the interior behind.

The building itself sits within a sheltered gallery, topped with cathedral-like vaulted end arches.

As well as a mecca for anyone who loves books and reading, the building also contains extensive educational facilities, arrayed along the edges of the interior and accessed via the atrium.

The ground and first floors consist primarily of reading rooms, books and lounge areas whilst the upper floors also include meeting rooms, offices, computer and audio rooms, and two rooftop patios. And underpinning the library’s public program, there are underground service spaces, extensive book storage facilities, and a large archive.

“Tianjin Library is part of German architects GMP’s 120,000m2 masterplan, which aims to accentuate the characteristics of the surrounding districts,” says Maas. “Through its design, the cultural complex is a symbolic junction point for the CBD, the old sector of the city, residential districts, commercial areas and the government quarter.”

The futuristic library is surrounded by four other cultural buildings. These were designed by an international team of architects, including Bernard Tschumi Architects and Bing Thom Architects. All five buildings are connected by a public walkway underneath a glass canopy designed by GMP.

Working with the GMP masterplan, MVRDV was given a strict volume within which all the library’s design elements were concentrated.

The library is MVRDV’s most fast track project to date. It took just three years from first sketch to public opening. Due to the set completion date, site excavation immediately followed the design phase. The construction method was eye-opening in its own right – included the raising of the central upper floors en masse supported by the end sections. This made for quite a sight as the bulk of the library literally inched skyward.

However, the tight construction schedule meant one essential part of the concept had to be dropped: access to the upper bookshelves from rooms placed behind the atrium. This required change – made locally and against MVRDV’s advice – rendered access to the upper shelves in the atrium space impossible.

The full vision for the library may still be realised in the future. However, until then, perforated aluminium plates printed to represent books feature on the upper shelves. Cleaning is done via ropes and movable scaffolding.

Tianjin Binhai Library was built according to the Chinese Green Star energy efficiency rating and has achieved a silver status.

First published date: 09 May 2018

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Credit List

Project Tianjin Binhai Library, China
Architects MVRDV and Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute
Interior architect TADI interior architects
Structural design Sanjiang Steel Structure Design
Civil engineer TAUPD & Sanjing structural design Co
Lighting design Huayi Jianyuan Lighting Design
Earthworks, landscaping, public area lighting design TADI
Control system design, fire consultant TAUPD
Roof Concrete floor steel bar truss deck by GMP
Cladding Glass curtain, wooden louvres
‘Eye’ auditorium cladding Mirror
Floors Cementitious self-leveling mortar
Lift services Schindler