An Ocean of Books

interior view of the Tianjin Binhai Library in China

All photos by Ossip van Duivenbode

I’m a lover of books. My house contains shelf after shelf of books, some I’ve read, some I may read soon, and some I’ll probably never read but their title reminds me of something I need to remember. I love to look at them, to see the patterns made by their colored spines. When I’m surrounded by books I feel both safe and challenged.

When I stumbled upon an article in ArchDaily about the new Tianjin Binhai Library in China I was immediately drawn to the images of the library. Designed by the Danish architecture firm MVRDV, working in conjunction with the Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute, the 362,000 square foot five story building is part of a larger cultural complex.

exterior view of the Tianjin Binhai Library in China

The central metaphor for the building is that of an eye, a place to see (learn) and to be seen (a community gathering place). Another apt metaphor is an ocean of knowledge, wave after wave of books, undulating across the walls.

interior view of the Tianjin Binhai Library in China

All these elements that I’m calling metaphors actually have practical applications. The large spherical eye holds an auditorium. The waves are shelves that not only contain books, but double as stairs and seating.

Design is essentially about form and function and this project is an example of a successful interweaving of these two ideas. Yes, the building is a visual show-stopper but the functional needs of the space are never secondary.

Since this blog is an auxiliary resource to our book Design: A Beginner’s Handbook I thought it would be useful to take a moment and look briefly at some of the ways the architects have used the elements and principles of design to create a building that balances form and function.

interior view of the Tianjin Binhai Library in China

Line, shape, space, texture, unity and variety, balance, scale and proportion, pattern, and rhythm. All of these elements and principles have a role to play in this building.

Look at how the large spherical shape of the auditorium pushes into the void in the ceiling, creating a rippling effect that continues into the lines of the shelving. The positive/negative shape relationship between the sphere and the recess in the ceiling set up a dynamic tension between the two forms that is balanced by the rhythmic undulation of the linear shelves and stairways.

interior view of the Tianjin Binhai Library in China

Line is a primary element used in the library. From the topographic map-like forms of the ceiling, to the shelves that wrap around the atrium’s interior, line is used to move both the patron’s eye and body through the space. The curving lines create monochromatic patterns that contrast with the short vertical colored lines found in the books displayed on the shelves.

Of course, the books make sense in a library but they also serve to add visual texture to the building. In the original design for the library all the books were to be real and accessible to library users. Unfortunately, and against the advice of the architects, in order to meet a production deadline, the upper bookshelves don’t hold real books. Instead they are backed with metal plates printed with images of books. The plan was for these upper areas to contain real books that could be reached through rooms on the other side of the shelf. The hope is that in the future the original design for this area will be implemented. Thus, for now two types of texture, real and implied, are evident.

interior view of the Tianjin Binhai Library in China

The architects have successfully used scale and proportion to balance the building. The large spherical auditorium is counterweighted by the patterned detail of the books and the lightness of the flowing lines. In addition, the scale of the atrium comfortably holds the auditorium. On one hand, patrons using the library are dwarfed by the scale of the space but the architects have ingeniously turned areas within the linear shelving into intimate reading and meeting areas. Instead of being threatened by the scale users are embraced.

interior and exterior views of the Tianjin Binhai Library in China

The image above shows an interior and exterior shot of the library. The outside of the building uses dark, rigidly geometric horizontal lines in a strict even patterning. Initially, this seems to serve only as a contrast to the white wavy lines inside but on closer inspection the relationship between the two types of lines becomes clear. The facade becomes a cutaway, as if a straight vertical cut was made into the building and the ends of the undulating lines had been revealed – imagine cutting an egg in half to reveal the interior. It’s a wonderful detail that visually integrates the inside and outside of the building, while serving a very practical function. The outside lines are actually louvres that help to control light levels and provide passive climate control.

You can see that the architects have carefully integrated form and function by using the elements and principles of design to achieve functional ends.

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