Objectively looking, the Sharjah Digital Library is a beautiful building sitting ten kilometres from the city centre, opposite Sharjah International Airport. At first, the visitor might wonder why the new library building is positioned so far from the dense city centre; however, looking at the Google street map, it is clear that this area is being developed as the new cultural hub in the city. Situated among cultural memorials, convention centre and world-class universities, this library is one of the centrepieces of the long-term goal in the city.
The entrance to the building is from the west, through a large roundabout, which seems like an arrival driveway appropriate for an airport terminal building. This lacks every ounce of human scale one would associate with a library building, but with only one bus stop in the proximity, it is clear the building is expected to be reached only by car. This is true for most places in this part of the world, where temperatures could easily reach north of 45 degrees regularly in the summers.
Catering to this is a large parking spot towards the north side, which would act as the primary entrance if you are driving yourself to the library. Here the guest is treated with a formal garden, which aligns itself to the adjacent memorials and hosts a sculpture by British artist, Gerry Judah. His sculpture is a contemporary interpretation of the ancient Arabic scrolls as a single, spiralling sculpture, which has become a bit of a tourist attraction in the city.
The most striking feature of the 13,000 sqm library is its 15 metres wide cantilevered roof that shades the façade through the day. The floating roof is grand and precision-made to represent in spirit the dunes of the desert. The four-storey building is hosting a squarish floor plate with core areas pinned at each corner. These core areas also contain back of house and service spaces and are the main structural support for the large floating roof above. In terms of planning, it reduces the need for additional structural members and creates column-free spaces.
“The House of Wisdom in Sharjah is a forward-looking conception of what a library should be in the 21st century – embracing a digital future while playing a crucial role as a community hub for learning, underpinned by innovation and technology,” said Gerard Evenden, Head of Studio, Foster + Partners.
Evenden continues, “The straight, minimalist lines of the building complement the dunes of the desert, set within a lush landscape. The House of Wisdom is set to be an oasis for the local community, led by research and innovation, at the heart of a new cultural district.”
Once inside, the guest is welcomed by a double-height reception area which leads to a central courtyard. This central courtyard is a key design element to introduce lush greenery inside the building and acts as a passive cooling strategy for the building. This lush courtyard appears as an oasis in a city which is largely devoid of greenery and is a welcome respite to the eyes. The ground floor is largely composed of spaces for exhibitions, a café alongside children’s educational space and reading areas for the public.
A large sculptural staircase, the entrance leads the guest up to the mezzanine level, which hosts series of pod spaces suspended over central courtyard offering personal or collaborative spaces. There are more exhibition spaces and reading lounges spread on the upper floor. The glass façade wraps around the building which brings light and promotes visual connection to the outside.
The building also includes several bioclimatic strategies such as fixed aluminium screens with different densities to filter the low harsh sun in the evenings. The lower levels are equipped with operable bamboo screen which could be controlled by the user and adjusted to provide privacy or control glare. Undoubtedly, the standout design feature are the two large public gardens on the North and Southside which add substantial public garden space in the city and act as a space of celebration. Only if the building was planned closer to the city centre, more people would have access to it and would not need to drive ten kilometres to enjoy it. Hopefully with time, as this part of the city is developed and infrastructure and public transport connectivity is improved, more people would have access to this space.
Another question worth raising is the water requirement for maintaining such lush gardens in the city which is largely devoid of rain. Hopefully the large roof act as a collector of whatever rain do fall and use it for landscape purposes; but that information is not available as of now.
The House of Wisdom is a building which we have come to expect from Foster + Partners. Its grand, precision-made building includes all the modern technology and sound design choices. The roof is a good design choice for this climate and more buildings in the region should replicate it. The central courtyard is necessary and should be the DNA of most buildings when planning for this part of the world.
Although the design checks every box when planning for a world-class facility, we need to take a step back and ask more pertinent questions, like how are we designing our cities? How do we decide to plan for a public building such as a library to be detached from the main city and who is really benefitting from it?
Architect and Interiors: Foster + Partners
Foster + Partners Design Team: Gerard Evenden, John Blythe, Dara Towhidi, Ricardo Abreu, Rafael Alcantara, Eugenia Bandera, Souraya Fathallah, Matas Belevicius, Qishan Huang, Dimitri Chaava, Alvaro Ferrandiz, Joe Paxton, Juan Pommarez
Local Collaborating Architect: Shurooq / Aurecon
Main Contractor: McLaren
Structural Engineer: Aurecon
Mechanical Engineers: Aurecon
Cost Consultant: RLB
Landscape Consultant: Cracknell
Lighting Designer: Delta Lighting Design
Glazed Façade: Alico
Steel: Unger Steel
Aluminium Screens: Alba Tower
Internal Ceiling: Obaid Al Abd
Bamboo Shutters / FF&E: Poltrona Frau
Landscape: Green Concepts
External Concrete Paving: Lamar
Stone: Rio de Janeiro
Terrazzo Flooring: IKK
Bookshelves and Internal Blinds: Eurosystems
Construction start: 2018
Completion date: 2020
Site Area: 40,000m2
Net Internal Area: 13,000m2
Number of buildings: 1
Number of Floors: 4
Roof: 90x90m with 15m cantilever
Foster + Partners is a global studio for sustainable architecture, engineering, urbanism and industrial design, founded by Norman Foster in 1967. Since then, he, and the team around him, have established an international practice with a worldwide reputation. With offices across the globe, we work as a single studio that is both ethnically and culturally diverse.