National Library architects channel Kazakh psyche

November 03. Central Asia Newswire

By Hal Foster

National Library architects channel Kazakh psycheMany Asian cultures identify with the Mobius strip, a geometrical figure that has no beginning and no end.

It symbolizes the continuous transformation of life itself, or of sizable sub-slices of life, such as politics or society.

The architects at Bjarke Ingels Group in Copenhagen didn’t know about the East’s identification with the Mobius strip when they submitted a bid last year for the design of Kazakhstan’s new National Library.

They’re glad they used a strip as the centerpiece of their design, however.

Bjarke Ingels Group won the competition in the summer of 2009 – and the architects who came to Kazakhstan to bring the design to reality believe a key reason is Kazakhs’ affinity for the Mobius strip.

David Brown of Bjarke Ingels Group, commonly known as BIG, said you can find sculptures of Mobius strips across Kazakhstan, including three or four in the capital Astana alone.

BIG didn’t know beforehand that the strips were part of the Kazakh psyche, Brown said. That means “it was kind of a stroke of luck” that its architects came up with that design, he said.

“The apparent familiarity they (Kazakhs) have with the shape, even with its complexity, was a great factor in the fact that we won the project,” BIG partner Thomas Christoffersen confirmed.

Christoffersen, Brown and others on the architectural team are putting in long hours these days to help the design become a reality.

The design is so unusual that it poses lots of building challenges for the contractor, Turkey’s Ahsel.

The architects’ challenge, Christoffersen said, is to stay as close to the original shape as possible while incorporating tweaks that make the structure “buildable.”

He said the architects are continually asking themselves when they decide whether to make a tweak: “When does the buildability come in?”

The building’s facade in particular will be very complex, Christoffersen said.

It will consist of 14,000 triangular glass panels, each with a different shape, he said. “Each panel is a unique size and is set at a unique angle,” he said.

Every panel also will contain three layers to deal with the temperature extremes of Astana – as high as 100 degrees in summer and as low as minus 40 in winter.

This means “the structure requires complex glazing,” Christoffersen said.

The nine-story building, the estimated cost of which has yet to become public, will sit on four huge columns. A central horizontal ring containing all of the library shelves will sit on the columns.

The library reading rooms will be on ascending platforms hanging off the rings which allow patrons to walk easily up slight inclines from one level to the next.  The building also will have escalators and elevators.

In addition to making alterations for buildability, Christoffersen said BIG has been making changes to accommodate a smaller structure than the one that the government originally called for, for a changed building location and for a scaled-back landscape design.

Some months after BIG won the design competition, “the client came back and said it had to be smaller,” he said.

“They also moved the site nearer to the Presidential Palace,” Christoffersen said. That required checking the new location to ensure that the design fit the terrain and soil characteristics.

Part of the design competition was a landscaping plan that was to include a park with a lake.

The structure will still sit in a park, Christoffersen said, but it will be one the city has designed. So the BIG architects’ main landscaping task will be creating a plaza aside the building.

Another challenge the architects have faced is the local building code, although they’ve been able to work with officials to address clashes between the design and the code, Christoffersen said.

Rooted in Soviet times, the code fails to account for many of the wrinkles in a futuristic building like the new National Library. So the architects have had to obtain many waivers to the code.

The good news, Christoffersen said, is that construction is under way.

“The structure of the basement is close to being done,” he said. And a steel contractor has been chosen, and is working.

Christoffersen said he knows the BIG team will look back with satisfaction in the next year or two on what they’ve accomplished in Astana.

“In the end, it’s all about creating this impressive piece of architecture that will be a credit to Kazakhstan.”