Client: Tianjin Binhai Municipality

Architects: MVRDV und TUPDI – Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute

Interior architecture: TADI interior architects

Structural engineering: Sanjiang Steel Structure Design

Lighting design: Huayi Jianyuan lighting design

25. Apr 2018

The new Tianjin Binhai Library in Binhai/CN.

Text: Jo-Eike Vormittag
Photos: Ossip van Duivenbode


Books in the classic sense are in danger of dying out. E-books, digital media and the internet are slowly but surely rendering book collections obsolete. And with every new entry in Wikipedia or Google Books, the originally revered institutions are finding it increasingly difficult. Their collections of books, writings and other works as a framework for the acquisition of information and knowledge are becoming less and less important. Libraries today are under immense pressure; they need a new image. Those that stand a chance of survival are either historically and publicly true heavyweights in the library world, or so ultra-modern that they are in with a fighting chance in the form of cultural sites offering opportunities for communication, services and events of different kinds.

The Tianjin Binhai Library in China is a public library. It is a newly built architectural statement, which makes its struggle for importance a little easier to cope with. In order to tell the whole story behind the project and to view it in the context of the lighting design, we have taken a closer look at the site, including the urban setting, the exterior appearance of the building and, above all, the interior and the media resources it contains.

Binhai is a new and booming quarter of Tianjin, a coastal metropolis outside Beijing under the direct administration of the central government of China. The district of Binhai was developed in the 1990s, replacing three former Tianjin districts. The new library building is located next to a park in what can be described as the cultural core of the quarter. It is one of a complex of five cultural buildings, which were designed by an international cadre of architects and are connected via a spacious public walkway with a glass roof. The ensemble was developed according to a master plan with a strict brief. The five-storey library building covers a surface area of over 33,000 square metres and features a spherical auditorium in the centre. Due to a tight schedule Tianjin Binhai Library was designed and built in a record-breaking time of only three years. The library can be entered via the front or the rear side of the building and thus serves as an interface between the park and the public circulation area that connects the other cultural buildings. The entrances to the library are incorporated into the extensive glazed facades, through which ample daylight can penetrate the interior space, enabling the unusual interior architecture and design to interact with the outside world in spite of the fact that the library is part of a densely constructed complex. That said, the glazed facades have received a louvre system for daylight control into which two large ellipsoidal openings have been integrated … a luminous sphere has been rolled into this main space, completing the image of a watchful eye when viewed from outside the building. Inner and outer world thus coalesce to generate a meaningful visual connection underscored by light.

The luminous sphere forms the focus and centre of the overall library space. Undulating bookshelves to both sides of the eyeball sphere frame the space, folding round the corners of the glazed facades where their message in reinterpreted through the louvre system. The shelves constitute a substantial part of the interior architectural concept, since they create stairs and seating, climbing higher and higher towards the ceiling. From around half way up they begin to form part of the layered ceiling in the sense of contours on a topographic map. Only the lower, accessible shelves are stocked with books. The upper shelves have received perforated aluminium plates printed to represent books – which is a pity! This is the point at which the first impressions one has gained of the remarkable project appear to lose some of their power and depth – in the truest sense of the word. But more reality might well have generated a quasi Documenta 2017/Athens effect. Within the framework of the world famous art exhibition in Kassel/DE one of the many projects realised was a “Parthenon of Books” by the Argentinian artist Marta Minujin. Interesting for sure, but very cost-intensive, with the result that Documenta suffered considerably economically speaking as well as image-wise.

The shelving creates a white stepped structure which gives rise to an initial wow effect thanks to the lighting, the highly diverse array of book spines adding a touch of colour and underlining the presence of the charming conglomeration of works. Multiple reflections fill the huge urban living-room with light. At the same time, the shelving merges comfortably with the outside space, appearing to break through the glazed facades and continue along them in the form of sun-shading elements at seemingly the same height as the indoor shelving to protect the interior space from excessive sunlight while ensuring an even spread of pleasant light throughout the library interior. The shelves in the lower sections are softly illuminated by continuous lines of light incorporated into the undulating shelving immediately above. The lighting system is embedded in the shelving, the light sources behind a frosted white glass cover. The shelves in the upper sections are also illuminated by luminaires embedded in the overlapping edges of the shelving, in this case directed upwards. Recessed ceiling luminaires have been sporadically applied. There are interruptions in the lines of light – for technical or design reasons. This naturally generates shadow effects along the surfaces of the shelves.

Given that the volume of the building was not to be changed, the architects opted to ‘roll’ the ball-shaped auditorium demanded by the brief into the building. The building simply made space for it “like a ‘hug’ between media and knowledge”, says architect Winy Maas. The sphere houses the auditorium which is accordingly accessible to interested users. Its reflective surface, which can be illuminated in different colours or colour temperatures, enhances the spatial effect of the atrium. Natural light pours through a large skylight positioned directly above and down into a light shaft. When the sphere is not illuminated using electric light, it shimmers like a pearl.

Above the atrium, on the higher floors, there are small reading rooms, work spaces and lounge areas behind the shelves. Meeting rooms, offices, computer and audio spaces, plus two roof terraces are housed beneath the roof. 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 may well be realised in the future; in the meantime, the false book covers do their part to conceal the change of plan.

It is pretty clear to which of the two types of library mentioned above the Tianjin Binhai Library belongs. It is definitely a “brand new” type and can therefore come up with a few alleged advantages with which to defend its right of existence. Some of them are helpful, others less so. As a newly born architectural creation, it is luckily not merely a plain and simple library, but a flexible centre of culture – backed of course by the other buildings in the cultural complex. The structure appears to understand daylight and uses it effectively. And even though one of the end walls on the building is sadly darker than the other one, thanks to a further immediately adjacent building, the glazed facades enable ample daylight to penetrate the space and fill the atrium.

The unique shelving system that lines the walls, and is in fact key to the interior architectural design concept, also serves as a means of merging the sun shading system into the overall architectural concept. This cleverly devised interaction between indoors and out is designed to generate the “eye” of the library, the eyeball being the spherical auditorium in the centre of the ground floor, which is illuminated from the inside by artificial lighting and receives daylight from above.   Even from a distance, it can be seen that the book is a key feature of the architecture. Unfortunately not because the books are so well lit, but because they are there in abundance, albeit to a large part in the form of fake book spines. A questionable, although understandable approach – given that a solution had to be found when part of the project was dropped – which also has its downside. The interior lighting design leaves a lot to be desired. What were supposedly designed to be continuous lines of light feature obvious interruptions, some of the white surfaces are unevenly lit and therefore not always applied to an optimum. Many sections of shelving and parts of the space have not received any lighting at all. In other parts, for example in the corridors leading to the rooms behind the shelving, in spite of their frosted glass covers the large rectangular recess-mounted ceiling luminaires give rise to a considerable amount of glare. This is made worse by the fact that there are many reflective or glossy surfaces such as the glass balustrade and the flooring. The lack of light in the lower section of the library certainly undermines any sense of uniformity in the overall space. The project comes across as being only half finished. The new library definitely stands for a new image. But to be honest: less pressure time-wise when realising the project, and more opportunity to design and implement the lighting for the benefit of the architecture, the users and the media resources, would have been a huge benefit to Tianjin Binhai Library. After all, with a capacity for 1.2 million books, this new library is well equipped to stand tall in the battle to prevent books from dying out.

The central sphere is a self-illuminating element and – how could it be otherwise – could also feature coloured lighting. Interestingly enough, there are very few images to be found anywhere in the media where the sphere radiates coloured light. Most likely because this would have a negative effect on the light and atmosphere in the entire space, given that the luminous sphere is omni-directional. Cheap pink or, even worse, a dynamic colour-changing solution would destroy the architecture completely. But in the view of the absence of any adequate visual evidence, or perhaps because this has this not yet been realised, this is only an assumption, of course …


 

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