The design of KSP Jürgen Engel Architekten for the new National Library of China in Beijing was the winning entry in an international competition. Founded in 1909 in a Beijing temple by Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, the library has transformed over the years in name, location, and size to rank today as the third largest national library in the world. Completed in 2008, today’s National Library of China includes the new 80,000 m² facility with its capacity to hold 12 million volumes.
The tripartite design of the library, symbolizing the past, present and future, consists of a solid base, a glazed center section enclosing structural cores and a steel-clad volume at the top. The stone-clad plinth houses the books and documents, representing China‘s rich cultural tradition. The glazed center section accommodates the public information area, access to reading rooms, foyer and cafeteria – all activities anchored to the present. The steel box at the top houses the digital library. Weighing 10,388 tons, the 120 × 105 m earthquake-proof steel of the roof structure is designed as a steel lattice framework. Six reinforced cores transfer this load to the base, thus enabling the column-free “floating ceiling” over the grand reading room. Based on the three traditional Chinese architectural components of building foundations, pillars and a floating ceiling, the form of the new library fulfills the “first function of the NLC“ which, according to curator Zhan Furui, “is to pass on the culture of the Chinese nation.” (Chinaview News)
The collections of the new library also corroborate this function. Among its rich holdings are the Oracle Bones from the Shang Dynasty, the Dunhuang Manuscripts from the Jin Dynasty and the “Si Ku Quan Shu“ or the “Library of the Four Branches of Literature“, unparalleled manuscripts from the Ching Dynasty. These assets constitute the library‘s greatest treasures and are housed in a glass vault through which a visual connection is established between the three parts.
As in many libraries around the world, the NLC faces the challenges of readership in the technological age. Reading rates are steadily dwindling, “from 60.4 % in 1999 to 54.2 % in 2001, 51.7 % in 2001 and 48 % in 2005 and 2007”, as the Chinese use the Internet and online books with greater frequency. The creation of the National Digital Library is part of a strategy to combat this trend and to provide integrated services that include the availability of 10,000 e-books, mobile phone enabled library services and the use of RFID technology for the ease of locating items. Launched in 2005, the mission of the Digital Library Project (DLP) enhances that of the National Library to “serve as the complete and perpetual archive of all Chinese publications.” (Library Connect)The goals of DLP director Fu Ping are twofold: “first, to preserve in digital form manuscripts and books, many ancient and priceless, embodying China’s history and cultural heritage; and second, to capture and preserve more ephemeral forms of today’s dynamic Chinese culture. Web pages, e-journals, blogs and so on – that appear only electronically.” With only 20 % of the National Library’s holdings available to the public in digital form in 2008, the Digital Library will greatly increase the reach of the National Library. The work of KSP Jürgen Engel Architekten is part of the NLC‘s effort to make “use of all conceivable methods, including employing advanced technologies and ideas of administration, to maintain the leading position within the libraries in China and even the world.”
“National Library of China: A Library of 100 Years Shoots for Future”, Chinaview News, September 9, 2009. www.news.cn.
“From Tortoise Shells to Terabytes: The National Library of China’s Digital Library Project”, Library Connect, Elsevier Library Connect Publications, vol. 4, no. 3, August 2006.
Originally published in: Nolan Lushington, Wolfgang Rudorf, Liliane Wong, Libraries: A Design Manual, Birkhäuser, 2016.