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House of Wisdom architect explains the aim of the Sharjah library

Words by Rob Chilton

Taking books into the future

Libraries used to be dark and dingy places, filled with fusty-smelling books and beige carpet worn thin. A stunning piece of modern architecture in Sharjah, however, is dragging libraries and their reputations into the future.

The House of Wisdom (HoW) is Sharjah’s new cultural edifice and has already become a landmark. Built to commemorate the emirate’s year-long tenure as UNESCO World Book Capital, the 12,000 square metre HoW comprises 15 halls spread across two storeys.

The library is now a Sharjah landmark

Shelves are filled with 305,000 books, of which 200,000 are in digital format. The children’s library – The Little Reader – houses more than 2,000 books, while another has been set aside for youth with 3,000 titles. A fabrication lab is equipped with 3D printers to build prototypes of experimental projects while other technology enables users to print and bind books in minutes.

Designed by Foster + Partners, an award-winning architectural firm based in the UK, the HoW also boasts lecture halls, reading lounges, exhibition spaces, a central courtyard, café, a restaurant, and outdoor gardens.

Gerard Evenden, Head of Studio at Foster + Partners explained to EDGAR how the HoW aims to change the role of reading for future generations.

Natural light floods in

What do libraries need to do to entice people inside these days?

Gerard Evenden: Long considered primarily as repositories for books and periodicals, the role of libraries in the life of contemporary communities has changed dramatically. The team visited libraries around the world to understand best practice. We found that the most successful spaces allowed for people to use the building through an extended period – a 24/7 community space that belonged to them. Alongside the libraries, there were spaces for talks and lectures, larger social areas, cafes for food and drink, child-friendly spaces – all functions that encourage people to come together. We planned the House of Wisdom by plotting many ‘day in the life scenarios’ of different potential user groups including students, senior citizens, young mothers, school parties, evening class groups, and authors, evaluating their needs clarifying our approach at every step.

What can libraries do for people in today's society?

GE: The cultural and library aspects are integrated to promote communication and cross fertilisation of ideas. In our experience, overlapping uses creates a richer programme that promotes learning – something we were keen to bring to the House of Wisdom. The also creates a certain flexibility that will allow the building to meet future needs and changing patterns of learning. This is increasingly important from the point of view of sustainability.

Screens shade the House of Wisdom

With mobile phones and shorter attention spans, what did you do to create a place where people can reflect and focus?

GE: We wanted to make the House of Wisdom a flexible place of learning, encouraging people to come together and share ideas. It was important that the building and landscape were integrated. For instance, the landscaped spaces and gardens have been designed to teach people about plant species, art and sculpture, also encouraging young children to learn through play. The Central Courtyard was inspired by the Oasis at Al Ain, with its layered planting providing shade and cooling.

What was the first element of the project that excited you?

GE: Very simply, to create a library for the future, one that would allow people to gather, learn and exchange ideas. The project was initially referred to as the Digital Library but through our research, we found many parallels with the original House of Wisdom, which was set up in Baghdad, Iraq in the 4th century as a place for scholars to exchange ideas. We had some great conversations with the client, Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi and her team about how the aims of the building had many parallels with one of the world’s earliest scholarly institutions, which informed the design process.

Gardens offer a place to contemplate

Can you talk us through the screens that shade the building?

GE: The shading strategy is a key part in the sustainability story. One of the first questions we asked ourselves was - how do we maintain good natural light and environment without allowing too much sun and heat into the building? We wanted to do this by passive means where possible, which inspired the idea of the large overhanging roof that shelters the building during the hottest parts of the day. Fixed external screens are used to prevent the sun from entering the building in the mornings and evenings with a final layer of battery-powered blinds to prevent any glare. Manually operated screens allow the occupiers to personally manage light levels to their comfort. The facade and structure were designed to have a very low thermal mass to allow the building to respond quickly to temperature changes.

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