Can Rem Koolhaas’ Qatar National Library Succeed in Promoting Literacy with Books?

QNL's Rare Arab Books Collection

Visitors descend into Qatar National Library’s Rare Arab Books collection like an explorer entering a Pharaoh’s tomb. / Photo: QNL.

Libraries must encourage interaction with books to promote literacy, even in the face of a rapidly digitising world, Pritzker-Prize winning architect Rem Koolhaas said at VCUQatar’s Tasmeem Doha art and design conference in Doha on 17 March.

“We have to make the encounter with the book inevitable and part of the experience itself,” Koolhaas said in his presentation “Hybrid-Making, Creativity and Luck.” The Dutch national’s OMA firm is designing Qatar Foundation’s Qatar National Library, set to open in Education City in 2014.

In the Qatar National Library’s brilliant design, the building’s corners are folded like books, creating entrances that lead to indoor terraces, enabling views of every book and department.

“It’s like archaeology,” Koolhaas said, “where you can walk over a city of books.” Visitors can then descend into the basement like an explorer entering a Pharaoh’s tomb, discovering the library’s gems of the Rare Arab Books collection.

All of this sounds fantastic — but will the current generation take to books like they have to mobile devices? “For a culture that’s working hard on literacy, it’s a good point of departure,” Koolhaas said.

Qatar’s National Library will include 60 online databases and 300 public computers, multimedia stations, a performance space and a cafe. The library is also a founding partner of UNESCO’s World Digital library to digitise 500,000 Qatar-related records.

Rem Koolhaas

Rem Koolhaas, of OMA. / Photo: OMA.

In Doha, Koolhaas is also designing HIA Airport City and the glowing cube of the Qatar Foundation Headquarters. OMA’s research studio AMO has fascinating Gulf studies in the Al Manakh online publication.

Koolhaas has experience designing libraries of the future, with the Seattle Public Library (2004). Its incredible design includes a welcoming space and computer terminals — but also stacks and a spiralling core of books.

Seattle Public Library has received rave reviews in the Times and New Yorker, though Project for Public Spaces says it “turns its back on the city.”

QNL's corners fold up like a book.

QNL’s corners fold up like a book, opening up entrances that lead to terraces. / Photo: QNL.

At the conference, one person asked Koolhaas if these kinds of buildings create challenges for people with special needs, but he disagreed.

“I once did a house for a person in a wheelchair, and he said, ‘I want the full complexity of the world. I’m a prisoner, and I want stimulation,'” Koolhaas explained. “I think [yours] is the wrong assumption, the opposite is twice as likely.” -30-