Tianjin, a bustling metropolis on the coast of northern China, is home to several landmarks of cultural and historical significance: Nankai University, the Temples of Confucius Wen Miao and Great Compassion, Tianjin Olympic Center, and the Tianjin Eye (a giant Ferris wheel rising high over the city’s waterfront) are just a handful of the interesting sites in China’s fourth most populated city. But there is perhaps no more buzz-worthy structure in Tianjin than its brand new, futuristic library.
The Tianjin Binhai Library was designed by Rottderam-based architecture and urban design practice MVRDV in collaboration with a group of local architects known as TUPDI (Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute). According to MVRDV, the library is part of a larger initiative to create a cultural district for the city’s 15 and a half million residents. The project, the firm shares, represents its “most rapid fast-track project to date.” The process, from the initial sketch to the library’s opening in October 2017, took a mere three years. This looming completion date necessitated immediate site excavation following the design phase, as well as various design comprises along the way.
The resulting structure is a 33,700 m² cultural centre surrounded by four other cultural buildings, designed by some of the world’s biggest architecture and design firms, including Bing Thom Architects and Bernard Tschumi Architects. The building contains five levels, which house educational facilities, subterranean service spaces, book storage, and a considerable archive. The first two floors are comprised largely of reading rooms and lounge areas, as well as the library’s books. Upper floors house meeting rooms, offices, computer and audio rooms, and two rooftop patios.
The true wonder of this library, however, is its vast atrium. This spherical-shaped space features floor-to-ceiling bookcases, their dilating forms lending a dynamic sense of movement. The use of white on such a grand scale gives this space the appearance of a futuristic settlement on some distant, icy planet.
The library is nicknamed The Eye — not to be confused with that giant Ferris wheel, of course. It earned this name thanks to the centrepiece of the grand structure: a pale, luminous sphere situated in the middle of the auditorium (which, explains MVRDV, enlarges the perceived space within, especially as those tiered bookshelves echo its form and thus create an “interior topographical landscape”). An eye-shaped opening in the library makes this sphere visible from the park outside, giving it the appearance of a massive iris.
High above that air is a grand, circular skylight that floods the pale space with natural light.
Despite the fact that the Tianjin Binhai Library is undoubtedly an architectural feat, it faced some controversy upon its opening. It earned instantaneous viral fame on Instagram, but visitors to the site quickly discovered that those bookshelves are something of a sham; only the lower shelves bear actual books, while the upper shelves are filled with aluminum plates that create the illusion of reading materials stretching all the way to that soaring ceiling.
This change to the initial design concept was made against MVRDV’s advice. Due to its tight construction schedule, access to the upper bookshelves (via rooms behind the atrium) was dropped, rendering those higher shelves decorative only. And while MVRDV shares that perhaps one day the complete concept will be realized, for now those upper tiers are simply eye candy, with cleaning done by way of ropes and scaffolding.
Despite criticisms from publications like Mashable and The Jakarta Post (the latter declaring the futuristic structure “more fiction than books”, citing tensions between the architects and local authorities as part of the issue; the ruling Communist Party had only approved a plan that utilized the atrium for circulation, sitting, reading, and discussion, but not the storage of books on shelves), Time still included the library on its Greatest Places 2018 list, describing it as “one of China’s buzziest new attractions.” Housing more than 1.35 million books and attracting over 1.8 million visitors since its opening, the Tianjin Binhai Library is a space that Time chose to recognize for its impressive architecture and potential to help improve China’s already high adult literacy rate.
Photos via MVRDV.