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By Zhao Chun-shui, Ph.D., Han Ning, Tian Yin, Dong Tian-jie, & Yang He-xian

A spectacular new library in northeastern China features terraced levels of bookshelves and an eyelike spherical auditorium. Despite its complex design, the facility was completed within a three-year time frame.

The new Binhai Library in Tianjin, a metropolis in northeastern China, bordering Beijing, features a striking and iconic design that surrounds a spherical auditorium with a terraced atrium that creates a veritable mountain of books. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves provide visitors with space on which to stand, sit, or climb from level to level, while the shelves also act as louvers to control the natural lighting within the reading areas.

The five-level, 33,700 sq m library building is one of five equally large new structures that form a series of cultural amenities collectively known as the Binhai Cultural Center. The other elements of the cultural center include an art gallery, a performing arts center, a civic center, and an exploration hall that highlights local industries, including aviation and aerospace, computer technology, green energy, and other topics. Located within Tianjin's Ziyun Park, the five buildings of the cultural center are connected architecturally via a 340 m long, 30 m tall "cultural corridor" that provides an enclosed public space for visitors to access each building; the corridor itself will also serve as a multifunctional facility. The overall cultural center has been described as a "living room" for the city, and the Binhai Library is an intimate part of this cultural cluster.

The idea to construct the cultural center was first proposed by the Tianjin Binhai Municipality in 2007. After an international design competition, construction started in 2014 and was completed in late 2017 when the cultural center officially opened to the public. A master plan for the cultural center was created by Gerkan, Marg & Partners, of Hamburg, Germany, which specifically designed the cultural corridor. The library was designed by MVRDV, of Rotterdam, the Netherlands (see "An Eye on Library Design"). Other international designers involved in various parts of the cultural center project included Bernard Tschumi Architects, of New York City and Paris; Bing Thom Architects (now known as Revery Architecture), of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Washington, D.C., and Hong Kong; and HHDesign, of Tianjin.

Located in the central area of the Binhai District in Tianjin, the cultural center is surrounded by a mix of residential and commercial neighborhoods. The site itself had previously been home to a soda plant for more than a century. All the buildings within the cultural center are supported on a continuous basement that is mostly used for parking and mechanical systems.

The population of the Binhai District is projected to double over the coming decades. To accommodate such potential demand, the new library can house a collection of more than 1.35 million books. In addition to reading areas with traditional volumes, the new library also provides space for such modern media offerings as digital books, music, and videos.

MVRDV collaborated on the library design with the Tianjin Academy of Urban Planning and Design, which was the co-architect and worked on the detail planning. The Tianjin Academy of Urban Planning and Design also oversaw the structural engineering, along with structural consultants Jiangyin Sanjiang Steel Structure Design Co. Ltd. and Tianjin University.

The library project faced numerous challenges, including a tight construction schedule—planned for completion within three years-and a limited construction budget. To accommodate the schedule, the design team adopted several key design principles, which included prioritizing the key functions and spaces, minimizing the type of building components to control the construction budget, and simplifying the construction procedure during the concept design phase to control the construction time. As a consequence of following these principles, the library was finished on time.

The library distinguishes itself with a clean shape. The combination of roughly oval-shaped glazed facades on the eastern and western sides of the building—facing a park and the cultural corridor, respectively—and the spherical auditorium in the center of the open atrium create the appearance of an enormous eye. The auditorium is, in fact, dubbed the Eye, while the terraces of bookshelves in the surrounding columnfree atrium have been called Book Mountain.

With a plan size of 54 by 60 m at its widest points, the atrium dominates the first, second, and third aboveground levels of the building, encompassing nearly 50 percent of the library's overall footprint of 110 by 60 m in places and effectively separating the building into two independent parts. A long-span structural system was designed to bear the load of the upper floors.

Although the span is long and the load is heavy, the height of the structural components could not be too high, otherwise they would have restricted the height of other aspects of the building. The solution involved connecting the two wings of the building with a double-story steel truss system that features four trusses, each with a span length of 54 m, a height of 10.35 m, and a weight of 100,000 kN, including the dead and live loads. To reinforce the connection, the steel truss system also extends an additional 9 m at both ends of the trusses.

The trusses were assembled on the ground and raised via crane to locations on the fourth and fifth levels of the building. The parallel trusses are 18 m apart and oriented along the east and west perimeters of the building and on either side of the circular opening to accommodate the skylight above the auditorium. The upper, middle, and lower members of the trusses support the rooftop floor and the fourth and fifth floors.

The trusses are connected by steel beams, located 6 m apart and spanning 18 m, that provide stability to the truss system and support the floors as the secondary beams. Together, the double-story truss and the floors work as an enormous, continuou structural component that is supported by the steel braced-frame structures located on the east and west sides of the building. The system ensures the strength and stiffness of the long-span structural component, bears the load from the fourth and fifth floor above the atrium, and bears the seismic forces, passing those forces into the braced frames.

To accommodate such loads and forces, a series of inclined struts were installed around the staircase and in positions adjacen to the columns that support the trusses to reinforce stability and avoid interference with the various functions within the library. The inclined struts and the truss system itself are hidden within the walls or combined with the doors and windows. Most of them are located along the corridors or along the route of the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems, which helps ensure adequate space for the MEP systems.

Because a 54 m long-span connecting structure is not covered by the local construction codes, and because the Binhai District is located in an area of high seismic intensity, the stability and safety of the structural systems, especially during an earthquake, were extremely important. As a result, the engineers used performance-based seismic design, relying on structural analysis software to conduct a structural analysis under various conditions. A push-over analysis and a dynamic elasto-plastic time-history analysis were used to consider the effects of extreme earthquakes and identify any weak points in the system so that they could be reinforced.

As a result of these analyses, the truss-connected system and its supporting columns were designed to remain elastic under typical earthquakes and accommodate the bearing capacity required under extreme seismic events. Local experts checked and approved these designs.

The structural components of these systems included steel box sections with component thicknesses between 60 and 70 mm as well as H-section steel elements with thicknesses of 20 to 40 mm. The floor slabs featured a reinforced-concrete steel-bar truss deck with a thickness of 120 to 150 mm, the latter in key locations.

Through discussions with the architects, an independent structural system was designed for the atrium, including its terraced levels of bookshelves and the spherical lecture hall. The structural system for the "book mountain" terraces was divided into three main parts.

The lower portion, on the building's ground floor, is supported by a steel-framed structure. The beams and columns allocated along the curve of the book mountain are hidden within the terraces, and the height of the columns and the directions of the beams vary with the shape of the terraces.

The structural elements of the center portion, at the second and third floors above grade, are either partially suspende from other supports or cantilevered to create the curved form of the terraces in plan. On the second floor are three entrances on each side of the atrium that lead to spaces behind the book mountain for book storage, reading areas, offices, and mechanical systems rooms.

The upper portion of the book mountain is designed as a ceiling system, featuring steel columns that bear the loads of the plaster ceiling.

Located in the center of the atrium, the spherical auditorium measures 21 m in diameter and features a two-part structural system that was designed to maximize the space inside the sphere: a double-layer reticulated structure that encloses the auditorium and a reinforced-concrete frame structure system beneath the seats.

The outer layer of the spherical reticulated structure forms the shape of the lecture hall and helps support the lighting system that projects images on the exterior of the sphere. The inner layer of the reticulated system bears the ceiling loads and supports the weight of the fire system, the lighting and acoustical systems, a catwalk, and other elements.

Columns for the reinforced-concrete frame system are located in a space at the bottom of the sphere and transfer the loads of the seats to the library's basement. The cantilevered floor reaches to the edge of the sphere and provides the maximum usable area.

Although the auditorium is not a complete sphere—the curving walls actually end at the atrium floor—the design was intended to create a visual effect that makes the sphere appear whole, intersecting with the floor and continuing beneath. To help create that illusion, the sphere is located on a sunken section of the floor, slightly larger in plan than the scale of the sphere. This sunken section surrounds the intersection point of the sphere with the atrium floor and makes it appear that the sphere does indeed continue beneath the floor.

The Binhai Library is structurally separate from the four other buildings in the cultural center. It is linked to them via the cultural corridor, which features a series of 28 steel tower structures—dubbed "umbrellas" because the top sections spread out in a 30 by 30 m array that supports the glazed canopy covering the corridor. The umbrellas partially overlap the roof of the library but are 2 m higher; they connect to the tops of the library columns via a series of support saddles that help stabilize the umbrellas and partially transfer the horizontal wind forces and seismic forces. This helped minimize the dimensions of the umbrellas for an improved visual effect. 

In addition, the rainwater gathered from the umbrellas is partially drained through the library's plumbing system; additional drain nozzles were designed on the library roof to help accommodate such draining. 

The continuous basement beneath the library and the other buildings of the cultural center is a reinforced-concrete shear-wall structure. The former soda plant had been demolished and all underground obstacles removed during the construction of the foundation, with the excavation reaching a depth of more than 10 m. The geotechnical conditions at the site featured soft soil and a high water table. Because of inadequate bearing capacity at the site, both compressive and uplift concrete piles were used.

The piles and pile caps were arranged beneath steel columns that extend down to the basement level; foundation beams are located
between the pile caps. Piles were also arranged in the form of a strip beneath the shear walls. The basement floor and exterior walls were constructed with impermeable concrete and feature a fl exible waterproof layer. The number of piles was designed to accommodate differences in the site's sedimentation, and the stiffness of both the basement and the foundation system was reinforced. Uplift piles were used beneath the atrium to accommodate the buoyancy caused by underground water.

The Tianjin Architecture Design Institute was responsible for the design of the cultural center's overall basement and foundation, and the load calculations, structural models, and related drawings were submitted by the engineers for each building to the institute.

The Binhai Library was constructed by the China Construction Eighth Engineering Division, based in Jinan, China. The steel structure was manufactured and installed by the Shanghai-based Shanghai Baoye Group. The structural engineers divided the complex systems of the Binhai Library into several manageable parts, simplifying the complicated tasks and seeking a direct and clear solution for each
part to realize this distinguished and impressive space. CE

Zhao Chun-shui, Ph.D., is a managing principal of design; Han Ning is a senior engineer and the structural director; Tian Yin is a senior architect and project manager/architectural director; and Dong Tian-jie is a senior architect of the Tianjin Academy of Urban Planning and Design. Yang He-xian is a senior engineer of Jiangyin Sanjiang Steel Structure Design Co. Ltd. 

An Eye on Library Design

China has a long history of books and libraries that has passed through several periods of development. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, various types of libraries were steadily developed until 1960, when development slowed because of natural disasters and the country's difficult economic period. The development of libraries also stagnated during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976.

Since 1978, when China began a period of reforms and gradually opened to the world, the development of Chinese libraries has progressed at a rapid and consistent speed, alongside advances in science and technology, information, and digitization, as well as a staggering boom in multimedia networks. Audio, video, and digital services are widely used in Chinese libraries, thanks to advances in automation and modernization.

The new Binhai Library in Tianjin is now contributing to the renewed focus on the cultural and educational importance of libraries in China, providing a new typology for learning, exchanging ideas, and socializing.

The request by the Tianjin Binhai Municipality was for a new library that would complement all the other buildings in a new cultural center in the Binhai District. With this master plan, the municipality took a bold approach, aiming to establish Binhai as a world-class destination for both local and international visitors. Importantly, the site of the library is located between the urban areas and a public park, thereby introducing density into an otherwise undefined area. The library benefits from this contrasting location because one side of the building faces the quiet park area, providing access to a green space and offering the building views of the surrounding neighborhood and the changes in light that occur throughout the day. On the other side, through a public corridor, the library is connected to the other cultural buildings, making it an interconnected volume that is part of the larger master plan.

The library building transitions gradually from a normal building to a unique "eye," formed by a spherical auditorium in the atrium at the center of the structure. The illuminated eye of the sphere—on which images can be projected—is surrounded by cascadin floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that also act as seating, stairs, and walkways that lead to more private reading rooms. The terraced bookshelves echo the form of the sphere and create a topographical interior landscape whose contours reach out and wrap around the facade. In this way, the stepped bookshelves within are represented on the exterior, with each level doubling as a louver to protect the interior against excessive sunlight while also creating a bright and evenly lit  interior. 

The contours also continue along the two glass facades that connect the library to the park outside and the public corridor inside. The facade on the park side creates a light, airy, and welcoming space. 

The atrium is designed as a social space and not necessarily as a reading space. It is a place for interacting with others and possibly attending events or other public programming, including lectures and performances. The main book collections are located in more traditional reading rooms behind the atrium, as well as in various other spaces throughout the building. 

The building's five aboveground levels also contain extensive educational facilities, arrayed along the edges of the interior and accessible through the atrium. The public program is supported by subterranean service spaces, book storage, and a large archive space. The first and second floors consist primarily of reading rooms and book and lounge areas while the upper floors include meeting rooms, offices, computer and audio rooms, and two rooftop patios. It was important to convey continuity to the main atrium hall, and thus it presents a seamless aesthetic that features stone composite walls, floors, and steps. 

The main challenge encountered in realizing the library involved its construction schedule—just three years—which was an unprecedentedly short amount of time from conception to completion. This led to a decision to abandon part of the original concept: providing access to the upper bookshelves from rooms located behind the atrium. Thus, the upper shelves do not hold actual books but instead feature perforated aluminum plates that are printed to represent books.

The response to the library has exceeded expectations, and since its opening in October 2017 the building has been praised in Chinese and international media. The library has inspired conversations about the purpose and meaning of such a cultural space. Is it a social space? Or is it a place for a contemplative exchange of knowledge? Can a library act as both a social and contemplative environment? The building has been described in many ways, ranging from "beautiful," "breathtaking," and "out of this world" to "super scifi." Its design represents our ongoing interest in developing radical, experimental, and new typologies for cultural and other projects. We envisioned a space that inspires users and promotes and celebrates reading. 

The new Tianjin Binhai Library is a step toward making libraries that are all-in-one spaces for learning, consuming, sharing, creating, and experiencing, while at the same time retaining their original use as spaces for the exchange of knowledge. Gone are the days of musty, carpeted rooms with outdated technology. Today, a library can serve as a public means of accessing knowledge as well as a place of inspiration.

María López Calleja is an architect and building information modeling (BIM) adviser at MVRDV in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Jareh Das was an MVRDV editor but has since left the firm.

Project Credits 

Client Tianjin Binhai Municipality 
Binhai Cultural Center master plan Gerkan, Marg & Partners, Hamburg, Germany 
Binhai Library design MVRDV, Rotterdam, the Netherlands; and the Tianjin Academy of Urban Planning and Design 
Detail planning The Tianjin Academy of Urban Planning and Design 
Structural engineering The Tianjin Academy of Urban Planning and Design, Jiangyin Sanjiang Steel Structure Design Co. Ltd., and Tianjin University 
Basement and foundation design Tianjin Architecture Design Institute 
Construction China Construction Eighth Engineering Division, Jinan, China 
Steel structure manufacturing and installation Shanghai Baoye Group, Shanghai

© ASCE, Civil Engineering, November, 2018


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