The Great Library of Alexandria


Thought of as the largest and most significant Library of the ancient world, the Ancient Library of Alexandria functioned as a major centre of scholarship under the Ptolemaic Dynasty for some 3oo years; from circa 300BC until the Roman conquest in Egypt in 30BC. There are many myths surrounding its destruction; from Julius Caesar accidentally burning the library down in 48BC, Theophilus ordering its demolition and the burning of its scrolls circa 400AD to the Moslem invasion in 600AD with Caliph Omar destroying the great library.

Whatever its fate, I am interested in the cultural significance this library was believed to have played. It was not a Library as we might know one to be today but combined many purposes with a much higher significance on society. It facilitated not only the archive but also the creation or writing of many scrolls, said to have contained between 300,000 and 500,000 scrolls in its archives. Alexandria was a major trade port at the time and whenever a ship came into port the crew were required to submit an inventory of any scrolls possessed on board to the library. It was then at the Library’s discretion which of these scrolls they would keep, replicate and return, or leave with the ship. A vast workforce was required at the Library duplicating scrolls for its archives. Often whole families would live and work at the library with accommodation and travel also being provided to the families of scholars conducting their own research. The library contained not only archives but accommodation, gardens, rooms for shared dining, reading, meeting rooms, lecture halls and a museum perhaps similar to a large university today. This created a community at the site not only producing new research and scrolls but also duplicating existing scrolls that were both archived within the library and sold or traded to the wider world. This not only brought wealth to the port but created an intentionally significant place of research and study with a vast number of people interacting with one another and researching, developing and disseminating their ideas.

alexandria diagram2
Programmatic diagram of the Great Library of Alexandria.


Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism by Robert T.Pennock


Creationsm vs Evolution

Genesis 11:1-9 claims that God created all languages at the same moment whilst modern scientific thought proposes it to be evolving continually. This study compares the evolution of languages or linguistics to Darwin’s theory of genetic evolution using linguistic evolution, as much quicker and therefore a more apparent example to discuss the topic. It highlights a shift within creationism to theistic science whereby factors such as intelligent evolving design is used to strengthen neo-crea-tionist viewpoints within modern scientific development.

The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges


Describes a universe whereby people are born into an infinite library of hexagonal rooms connected by two corridors of which contain a spiral staircase accessing the floors above and below and a small toilet and separate sleeping space from each corridor. Each hexagonal room has four of its six walls occupied by a bookcase some 2m in height containing five shelves. Each shelf contains thirty-five books which all have four hundred and ten pages, forty lines per page and eighty letters per line. Between each hexagon is a vast air shaft; an infinite drop. The books contain every single possible combination of characters in every single language thought to exist and the storey focuses on the frustration of people not being able to understand or find a book which makes sense and the search for a book which must catalogue the position of all the other books. The population of this ‘world’ used to be one person every three hexagon’s but due to suicides the population has reduced and now people can wander for weeks or months before coming across another.


The Tower of Babel

Tower of Babel

The City of Babel as recorded in Genesis 11:1-9 aims to provide explanation for the origin of different Languages. It relays the myth of a great tower constructed by a united humanity of one language in an attempt to reach the heavens. God, seeing this, confounded their speech and scatted them to all corners of the globe. Could the internet be seen as our ‘Babel’?

“1.Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in and settled there.
2.They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.
3 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
4 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.
5 And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.
6 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
7 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.
8 Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth”.
— Genesis 11:4–9

Lets start another Project!

The Library of Babel REDUX

Some say that in 30 BC the Alexandria Library was accidentally set ablaze by Julio Ceasars troops resulting in the single most devastating loss of original written manuscripts in history and it was already a contributing factor in plunging Europe into the dark ages. Today many would say that in our digital age a library as a physical edifice is an anachronism and an unnecessary public expenditure. Others like Franklin D. Roosevelt described libraries as “the great symbols of the freedom of the mind,” “essential to the functioning of a democratic society.”

Regardless of ones standpoint, there is a resurgent interest in the library as a civic edifice coupled with an ongoing strife to reinvent on how a library is used and becomes an integral part of our everyday culture. Cardiff, Swindon, Newcastle and soon Birmingham have new-built super-libraries that Birmingham city council leader Mike Whitby referes to more than a library and more of a “palazzo of human thought”. Liverpools and Manchesters central libraries are undergoing major renovation work and the British Library is already in dire need for a major re-organization and renovation. This phenomenon is global and evidenced by the large number of current international public library design competitions. Contrary to popular belief central libraries across Europe are some of our cities most popular public visiting attractions.

Unit04 are going to work on the materialization, reinvention and projection of the library as civic center of society at a time when architectural discourse is apparently is at a crossroad once again plagued by uncertainty of the role of the architect and architectural practice. Exhibitions and publications increasingly call for a critical discourse on architectural discourse questioning the usefulness and appropriateness of material development in our current economic climate. Unit04 remains firmly engaged with the projective capacity of architectural design arising from the material development based on the opportunities afforded by the development of new generative and fabrication techniques. It is our direct aim to work with each student on how to deal with the complexity of an architectural library project, instill a sense of purpose and innovation as well as how to acquire the necessary design, fabrication and production tools necessary to deliver a material manifestation of a library as a public edifice projecting an optimistic architectural future.

Jonas Lundberg, Nathanial Kolbe, Eva Diu.

‘Alexandria Library’  ‘Babel’