Now open: the House of Wisdom

The House of Wisdom, a library and cultural centre that is being pitched as the catalyst for a new cultural quarter for Sharjah, has opened to the public.

Foster + Partners designed the 12,000m2 building, and it looks very good – a low-rise two-storey ctangle with a huge floating roof cantilevered on all sides with a 15m overhang, all straight lines and elegant proportions with the kind of understated confidence that hasn’t always characterised public sector developments in the UAE.

Inside it’s pretty special too. Of course books are the main raison d’étre, and as well as many thousands of them (physical and digital) with indoor and outdoor reading areas, there are high-tech extras like print-on-demand book stations and specialised digital tools for searching, finding and reading. Also to be expected are the exhibition spaces, meeting rooms (and ‘meeting pods’), and a café. More unusual is the fabrication lab and “world-class equipment to stimulate innovation and creativity”. So it’s not just a repository of books; it’s more a social hub for learning and research, supported by innovation and technology.

There’s a real sense of clarity and lightness, thanks to the huge glassed areas and the lack of supporting columns – the massive roof sits on four cores that also contain the staircases and back-of-house and service spaces.

The overhang shades the façades for most of the day, while fixed aluminium screens perforated at differing densities filter the low sun in the evenings. Inside there are movable bamboo screens to provide privacy and/or control glare.

When not in use the bamboo screens are left open, preserving the visual connections with the landscaped gardens. There’s dense planting in the central courtyard, which is something of a classic design triumph – light for the interior of the building, visual respite from the angles and planes of the construction, a cool and comfortable outdoor space that could be used equally for social events or quiet contemplation.

And there are gardens surrounding the building too. Indeed, there’s a lot of design emphasis on establishing a connection with the outside. The landscaping is divided into a knowledge garden and children’s playground to the south, with several native species and a water feature; and a more formal, geometrically arranged garden to the north containing The Scroll – a piece of public art by British sculptor Gerry Judah that is a contemporary interpretation of the ancient Arabic scrolls as a single, spiralling sculpture that loops towards the sky and is illuminated at night.

Although it has been cleverly made and in its own way has a flowing elegance, the Scroll in fact seems like an unnecessary extra. The refined proportions and the straight, almost minimalist lines of the House of Wisdom building itself are better complemented by the equally understated (but still lush) landscaping.

The original House of Wisdom was in Baghdad, reputedly the world’s greatest library (and probably a centre for the study of humanities and for scientific research, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy and chemistry, zoology, geography and cartography); it was destroyed by the Mongols in the bloody siege of 1258 that brought down the Abbasid Caliphate. There’s no archaeological evidence for the House of Wisdom, and its precise function and contents are still a matter for debate – indeed, there’s some question about whether it existed at all as a physical entity. Which isn’t a bad starting point for the Sharjah version; it seeks to recreate the principles rather than the building.

It also aims to bring a contemporary take to the idea of a library. As Gerard Evenden, Head of Foster’s Dubai studio, summarised it: “The House of Wisdom in Sharjah is a forward-looking conception of what a library should be in the 21st century – embracing a digital future while playing a crucial role as a community hub for learning, underpinned by innovation and technology”.

The House of Wisdom is just off the E88 Al Daid/Masafi road, near the American University of Sharjah and opposite the airport. (So if it is to be the centre of a new cultural quarter, it’s going to be 10km from the city’s actual centre …)

All photographs by Chris Goldstraw for Foster + Partners

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