July 2001


Hong Kong Central Library

Central resource 

When plans were decided on for a new central library beside Victoria Park, the prominence of its location was recognised by its client, the former Urban Council. Originally intended as a central library for Hong Kong Island to complement existing facilities in Kowloon and the New Territories, the project soon came to represent the SAR as a whole. Building Journal spoke with Architectural Services Department Senior Architect Ho Chiu-fan about Hong Kong's flagship library.

To incorporate all the client's requirements for a building housing not only a library but also the Hong Kong Public Libraries Head Office and public facilities including a lecture theatre and exhibition gallery, the architects put their minds to an overall design concept. An east-meets-west concept was adopted, referencing Western influence on Hong Kong society and culture, with Chinese characteristics and thinking within. As such, the building outlook features distinctly European elements while the interior adopts a configuration reminiscent of the traditional Chinese courtyard home.

The majority of visitors enter from the Victoria Park side, either directly from the main road or via a newly-provided footbridge. Two main staircases lead up a level from Causeway  Road; each representing Chinese and Western literature. With quotes engraved on each step and aligned left, the staircases appear like open books lying face up, with the centre handrails as the spines. Four recesses branch from the lower flights of stairs to depict Hong Kong's night sky during the four seasons with the glass panel star maps backlit by fibre optics. Two additional recesses at the upper level feature maps (the Western hemisphere on the west side and the Eastern hemisphere on the east side) with planetary statistics included.
        Rising up the stairs past a central water feature, the visitor heads through an open deck to the main entrance. Sculptures and installations feature throughout the outdoor area, in particular bronze children, since youth benefits from the cultivation a public library offers. Despite the library's opening hours into the night, the podium deck features few lampposts but instead uses floor lighting that lies visually unobtrusive by day. The first-floor outdoor centrepiece is a granite globe as part of a fountain; the stone ball's spin propelled by water and the correct rotation axis ensured by a specially-designed cylinder of lead within the globe. Water represents wisdom and the humble in Chinese thinking, explained Ho, and in this case the liquid shifts the hardest of materials. In additional symbolism, this spinning Earth sits directly in front of the main entrance-the library faces the world.
        The podium deck offers an unobscured view of the 12-storey building's facade, which adopts a classical approach. The main elevation features a "gate of knowledge" as yellow glass reinforced concrete (GRC) panels rise either side of curtain wall, coming together at a central pediment at the top. The triangular pediment serves a functional purpose, concealing antennae and the gondola system when parked in a central position, but also represents a library's importance to society. The Greek-style Ionic columns placed three to a side represent liberty, democracy and wisdom (books overcome limits of space and time in ensuring citizens)discourse and learning, explained Ho.
        The mixture of solid and glazed surfaces represents functions within the library. The seventh floor in particular features GRC blocks spanning much of the level, home to the library's Central Book Stack area. Floor-to-ceiling glazing stretches on each floor appear where reading and study areas are located, while shelving areas receive more solid exterior treatments. "We wanted a beautiful harbour view, " Ho said. "That's why we have a combination of solids and voids to make the facade more interesting and to break down the scale of the building." The off-site pre-cast GRC panels, noted Ho, were chosen since the material can be hung onto the structure, sparing the use of excessive formwork. The shade of yellow chosen follows Chinese thinking-earth denotes the central among the five elements of earth, water, metal, wood and fire, which each hold representative colours.
        Use of GRC also allowed moulding of architectural motifs, particularly the Hong Kong Central Library symbol comprising a circle, a square and a triangle-the sky, Earth and the accumulation of knowledge respectively. Chinese characters for man and the sky are also held in the design.
        While the main elevation beckons visitors to a "Gate of knowledge" the rear facade adopts a slightly different approach with a four-storey "Window of hope" placed central. The glazed feature denotes a goal of those entering the library and, while suggesting a conceptual equilibrium between the two elevations, stands apart from symmetry seen in classical Western design approaches.

Visitors entering the library pass either side of a glass screen emblazoned with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department logo. The traditional Chinese arrangement ensures the main door is never leading a direct line into, or out of, the building. The main entrance lobby offers a choice of directions: right to the circulation desks or straight ahead to the main atrium's lifts and escalators. A cafeteria is placed to the rear of the floor.
        Banks of escalators carry library visitors up the Western end of the six-storey main atrium while three elevators rise opposite, set against a photographic backdrop of stars. Floors surrounding the main atrium begin with the Children's Library on level two and peak with the Audio Visual Library and Young Adult Library.
        "We used the atrium to connect all the general library's floors into one entity, so that when people come in they are not feeling like they are coming into a building segregated for different functions but one whole library with all functions interconnected by a central atrium," Ho said. The central atrium is also used to infuse natural light, with double-floor glazed areas provided at the fifth and sixth floors. Light green-tinted laminated glass is specified throughout the project to protect against UV and block out traffic noise. The glass is non-reflective to avoid the glazing becoming a mirror at night and blocking views outside. Motorised venetian blinds are provided for the double-floor glazing.
        All floors adopt a palette of materials that minimises reflective elements. The majority of walls and columns within the shelving and reading areas are finished with unpolished limestone and beechwood. Blue carpet tile flooring is bordered with colours specific to the floors-reinforcing the arrangement of individual functions on single levels. Reading and learning materials are backed with computer systems and self-checking lending services on each floor, all connected through network floor systems underfoot.
        The public library's main atrium ends beneath the seventh floor, which is the Central Book Stack. The floor is used to store all books not kept on the shelves. The library floors are connected to a computerised book conveyor system that whisks materials to wherever they are requested in the library.

The eighth and ninth floors house a second, smaller central atrium for the two-storey Reference Library. Set apart from the general library centered on the main atrium below, the Reference Library is placed separately in consideration of its use as a distinct area for academic study.
        The Arts Library is housed on the tenth floor along with sound-proofed music practice rooms. At the top of the building, on the eleventh floor, is the Hong Kong Public Libraries Head Office, oriented to face the harbour and featuring a rooftop courtyard garden to admit natural light into the office areas.
        Other than the library and head office functions, the project scope also incorporated ground floor facilities including a lecture theatre, a user education hall, extension activities rooms and an exhibition gallery. Accessible separately at ground level, the facilities can be used to conduct events without disturbing Central Library management.
        Hong Kong Central Library opened in May this year. The building cost was $594 million, including the footbridge to Victoria Park and the sports ground behind the building.

Leisure and Cultural Services Department
Architectural Services Department
China State Construction Engineering Corporation
main contractor

-- Building Journal