Snøhetta Unveils the World’s Largest Climatised Reading Space

Snøhetta’s Beijing City Library has opened doors for visitors as the world’s largest climatised reading space. It is the firm’s latest innovation in the library typology, 35 years after it began work on Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt. The project introduces a contemporary yet indelible place for learning, knowledge sharing and socialising to Beijing’s rich cultural and intellectual scene.


The new library is located in Tongzhou District, a designated sub centre of Beijing that is often considered the eastern gateway of the capital. As one of three new major cultural buildings in Tongzhou, the library further establishes the area as a vibrant district and an extension of Beijing’s urban fabric. It anchors the neighbourhood’s ambitious masterplan and will help to catalyse its transformation from a relatively undeveloped area into a lively arts and cultural destination. New transit links to Beijing’s centre are underway, promising to further integrate Tongzhou with the city and drive visitors to the sub centre.

Snøhetta was awarded the Beijing City Library in 2018 through an international competition, and the project was completed with local partner ECADI.

Reinstating relevance in the digital age

A decade or so ago, libraries were thought to be a disappearing typology as digitisation has increasingly made information accessible at any time and place. To reinstate the library’s relevance in the 21st century, Snøhetta set out to offer a new vision for how it looks, works and serves the community. The library draws focus on the physicality of a book as an object and the conscious exercise of turning the pages to take in the written word as the primary experience amidst the picturesque setting of hills, trees and the Tonghui River.

To reestablish the library’s role as an important pillar of public and intellectual life and become more than a mere repository of books, Snøhetta has positioned the building as a centre for learning, culture and community. Drawing on the historical origins of libraries finding innovative responses to the needs of their time and place, Beijing City Library makes the open exchange of ideas and human dialogue its core purpose. Throughout, there are dedicated spaces for exhibitions, performances, conferences and the restoration of ancient books. The building firmly rejects the argument that the library is becoming a derelict typology with the numerous possibilities it creates by fostering an emotional connection between books, people and the natural landscape beyond.

Sculpting the valley and the hills within

The glass-lined building invites nature into the reading space and lends transparency to the enriched interior environment when viewed from outside. At the heart of the library is a sweeping, nearly 16m-tall welcoming forum off of which rise stepped terraces along smooth, rhythmic curves. Carved through the centre is a meandering pathway called the ‘valley’, which serves as the main circulation artery of the building. The valley mirrors the course of the nearby Tonghui River, seamlessly continuing the experience of the landscape beyond and linking the north and south entrances to lead visitors to all other spaces inside.

The terraced hills rising from the valley are designed to create a sculpted interior landform that serves as the ground, seating and shelving – an informal zone with opportunities to relax, talk or read quietly, all while staying connected to the larger space. Semi-private reading areas and conference rooms are embedded into the hills, while book stacks and table seating are set on long, flat areas atop. This central, open area is fully accessible and incorporates one of the largest book Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS) in the world.

Punctuating the large space to transition between the scale of the valley and the books are tall, slender columns that mushroom into flat panels shaped like ginkgo leaves – referencing a 290-million-year-old tree species native to China. The overlapping panels and the interstitial glass inserts create a canopy-like roof that floods the interiors with filtered daylight. Under this ginkgo canopy, one can reach the summit that overlooks the valley of books and the horizon of the vast landscape beyond. This experience of oneness with the immediate surroundings and the imagined world offered in books allows the reader to forge memories that are unique to the place.

At the northern and southern edges of the building, where real ginkgo trees are planted at the entry points, the hills focus their views outwards to enhance the connection with nature further. The library celebrates Beijing’s natural and cultural heritage by integrating reading, performance and landscape together.

Setting the green standard with sustainable technology

The Beijing City Library rethinks how libraries today can address the pressing climate challenges while incorporating cutting-edge technology to improve visitor experience. The building achieved China’s GBEL Three Star, the highest attainable sustainability standard in the country, by minimising both embodied and operational carbon. The project is as much a steward of its environment as of the communities it serves.

The use of modular components and a rationalised structural grid reduces the manufacturing waste for the building. For the ginkgo tree columns, a single module type is rotated on a 9 x 9m grid throughout the building to give the appearance of variety while being efficient to fabricate and install. These columns also house integrated technology to control interior climate, lighting and acoustics, as well as collect rainwater from the roof to be reused for irrigation by channelling it to a green infrastructure system.

Generous roof overhangs reduce solar gain on the glass facades – currently the largest load-bearing glass system in China – achieving an important design element without compromising on sustainability. To further optimise the facade, the design reduces the height of the glass on the east and west wells and uses insulated low-E glass. The roof has integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) construction elements that replace the conventional roofing and facade materials, utilising the prime exposure of the rooftop to sunlight for renewable energy production.

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