Originally conceived by His Excellency Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), the Abrehot library site was chosen opposite to the parliament building on formerly designated parkland. A team led by Dr. Fiseha Assefa from Prime Minister’s Office called a meeting to brainstorm and develop this grand plan. Local and international experts were invited to give their input. Prominent intellectuals from the diaspora like Professor Almariam and Dr. Alulla Abate gave their input and Abba Architects PLC produced the concept design within a period of one week. This dynamism was made possible because of the exemplary leadership of Dr. Fissha and His Excellency Prime Minister’s close follow-up and positive support. In this process, Addis Ababa Construction Bureau then led by Ato Yonas Ayalew and his deputy Mr. Helawi’s involvement was crucial to take it to the next stage of the design-build bid process swiftly. This process was later successfully completed by Ato Demelash who succeeded Ato Yonas to lead the construction bureau till the whole project was transferred to the Mega Projects office that followed the construction to its successful completion.
Located opposite the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s Parliament Building and developed by the architects as a well-deserved gift for residents of Addis Ababa, the capital city of Africa.
Ethiopia has centuries-old literacy culture but when it comes to library buildings we don’t have a defining architectural heritage. However, the old age tradition of reading in the open sky under tree shade and beside tranquil water bodies is what is commonly known across the board.
Therefore, the design concept tries to capture this and attempted to translate it into contemporary architecture steeped in tradition. The site is primarily arranged in three functional zones. The first zone is “the knowledge garden” which is the front face of the library space that welcomes visitors to the outdoor reading space defined by a row of olive trees arranged rectilinearly to create a semblance of a large room. The olive trees are placed in rectangular masonry structures that will also serve as seating. A centrally elevated platform with four “Sessa” trees (Albizia Gummifera) creating a natural canopy offers a stage for public speaking, poetry reading, and verities of cultural shows. The knowledge garden outdoor setting invite passerby both pedestrian and vehicular to be drawn to the facility.
The second part of the library is the area designated as “knowledge springs”. Here water bodies with fountains are placed to create a tranquil environment for visitors to sit and relax while they are browsing for information on their laptops, tablets, or mobiles. The knowledge spring garden accommodates a sizable wooded area and children’s playground. Its direct link visually to the children’s library will invite children if they want to take a break from indoor activities.
The third and main functional zone is “the knowledge center” which is the library building itself. From Outside, the 20m high colonnaded space creates a gentle yet pronounced entry space that serves as a transition from an outdoor knowledge garden to an indoor knowledge center. Its imagery is inspired by Ethiopian “Tibeb” design, the bold orange “marmorino” plaster is like the “Jano Tilet” design while the detailed calligraphy on the columns replicates the intricate and elaborated patterns on “Tilet” the embroidery edge of Ethiopian traditional cloth “Tibeb libes” meaning a cloth made in wisdom. The same word “Tibeb” meaning wisdom is engraved on these monumental columns in the 18 languages, languages that have their own alphabet that proudly shows how Ethiopia stands tall among the few languages in the world that have its own unique alphabet for Melania. Behind this colonnaded space is placed transparent glazed wall keeping the main library connected to the knowledge garden. On the southwest, the façade is encrusted with perforated ductal concrete panels designed as a decorative element with calligraphed “geez” alphabet and numbers. Placed detached from the glazed wall behind to create shading from the harsh southwest sun irradiation.
The library building designed a glass box on three sides except on the west. On the north, the façade is rather plane but with raw concrete colonnades and a massive brutalist blind wall, it creates a stark contrast to the fully glazed cafeteria building. The massive inclined parapet walls roofing of the cafeteria Eco the main library building creating an interesting dialog on the skyline. The entrance vestibule placed on the corner of the East façade of the building welcomes customers into the indoor library. The large warm orange “marmorino” plastered wall punctured with varying size windows above it defines a secured enclosed space for the entrance & exit point. Entering the library building one will encounter a multi-layered alternating floor level with an open central atrium terminating with glazed vaulted roofing. The central open atrium is graced with the “Etsepatos” tree (Dracena Abysinica) surrounded by shrubs and flowering plants. The central green area with the tree in the middle is symbolic of the old age tradition of Ethiopians culture of reading outdoor under tree shade.
The ground floor has the main reception desk, the reference counter, the periodicals. A separate enclosed space for the children’s library is also included within it. It also has a partially enclosed space for nursing mothers, separate child-friendly toilets are provided with space provision for diaper changing platform. The first floor is placed right above the reference counting only a portion of the total enclosure allowing double-story height on the frontal parts of the library on the ground floor to the periodicals and reception area. The shelving is mainly furnished in the single-story height floors, while the second floor alternate partially to a double story reading area with the same orange color splash on the back wall. On this same floor, a single area is dedicated for group study and business hub varying size rooms five in number and shelving space with partitions. The five rooms allow the possibility for visitors to conduct a meeting to also do joint projects and exchange ideas for smaller groups.
The third floor has a dedicated space for the Brail library with an audio room on one side shelving and a reading space on the other. The fourth and final floor with the oval open space in the middle reflects the skylight that brightens the whole of the library with natural light. The library director’s office with additional rooms for support staff and book review space is tacked on the northeast corner while on the south side a meeting room with a capacity of 120 seats and a single meeting room with forty seats. The large meeting room can also be divided into three smaller meeting rooms with soundproof foldable partitions.
In addition, the space has a provision of a breakout pre-function space separated from the main library with a glazed partition. This room is primarily provided for lectures, a life-sharing space for citizens with a unique experience, for hosting talks and dialogs on pertinent issues and the like. Direct elevator access from the basement is also provided to prevent noise from crowds coming to the various meeting events.
The basement/semi-basement area below the ground floor extending below the open plaza between the library building and the knowledge garden accommodates a parking space for 116 cars, book receiving room, catalog room, a large archive room, data server room, a production room (for printing, photocopy, binding, 3D printing and duplication), and a special collection library for special books that will only be opened for researchers with permission. In addition to these functions changing rooms with showers and lockers and a cafeteria with a full flagged kitchen is provided for the staff including resting and relaxing area since it is envisioned that the library to be opened 24 hours.
A social space that can be used both by librarians and visitors where they can gather to enjoy a cup of coffee, a small snack /meal away from the busier public spaces. The restaurant is designed in such a way to be accessible by visitors in all directions. The restaurant can serve visitors seating around the patio as well as at the grand plaza. The small kitchen in the back will be supplied from the lower floor storage space that can be accessed from the basement level for delivery as well. The cafeteria has transparent curtain walls on all sides giving spectacular sightlines towards the library as well as the garden across the road.
8 free-standing book shops are designed along the pedestrian path on the northern side of the site. the shops are designed with a front rolling up shutter door which fully opens and gives a welcoming sight for the visitors. The shops are provided with a public front plaza and garden in stepped platforms which can be used as an outdoor reading space. These plazas are accessible both by stair and directly from the upper section of the pedestrian entry for universal access. These shops are designed to be used by old book collectors that are scattered in town with small container shops.
Landscape and Urban Spaces
Landscape as an outdoor reading space and recreational park: Ethiopians have used the natural landscape as an outdoor learning space for decades. The church schools in the monasteries are still a living example of this cultural phenomenon. The Islamic schools (madrassa) in the countryside are also other examples of outdoor knowledge transfer. Besides in the countryside studying under tree shades in the riverside landscapes is a common phenomenon. These are the outdoor natural landscape reading spaces that provide students with quiet and tranquil outdoor reading rooms in touch with nature and enjoying the fresh breath from the water garden.
The landscape is designed with major principles of landscape design to create attractive, pleasing and comfortable formal and informal (organic landscape spaces).
Indigenous plantations Vs sustainability
The entire landscape area is planted with indigenous plants which are adapted to local environmental conditions, demanding far less water, saving time, money, and perhaps the most valuable natural resource, water in addition to providing vital habitat for birds & many other species of wildlife benefits as well.
Unfortunately, most of the landscaping plants available in nurseries here are exotic species from other countries. These exotic plants not only sever the food web, but many have become invasive pests, out-competing native species, and degrading habitats in remaining natural areas. As a design approach, we are trying to overcome this challenge in Addis Ababa by planting indigenous plants such as Sessa, Weyra, Zigba, Tid, Birbira, Girar, Koso, Warka etc ..depending on the location and type of activities under the trees. The gardens are also planted with succulent plants and low-growing shrubs with different arrangements to give nice-looking visual appeal and barrier from the street side noise.
The landscape was organized based on the topography and different characters within the landscape to be used so that it can be used for different activities. The landscape area is generally zoned as follows:
The knowledge garden is a formal garden with trees defining the edge creating an outdoor room. it is located across the plaza from the main library. The garden can be used as a public speaking space for outdoor shows, poetry reading, and the like. The idea of the knowledge garden was inspired by the traditional Ethiopian schooling system which is mostly under the shade of a big tree. The tree garden is designed as an outdoor reading room with a line of Weira” (Olea Europia) all around the edge forming an enclosure around the rectilinear space and a central stage area defined by an elevated platform and canopy of “Sessa” (Albizia gummifera) trees. The central axis of the garden can be used as a path for visitors coming from the parliament side leading them directly to the entrance of the main building.
The garden is also furnished with landscape seats under trees with power & Wi-Fi connections where visitors can browse different digital media enjoying the outdoor scene.
This is one of the major zones of the site designed with water features, a sand playground, furniture, and small play spaces with diverse characters, aimed mainly at families and smaller children (3 to 10 years). The area has water features with fountains and water sprays with soothing sounds for readers seating around mimicking the traditional schooling and reading around rivers. The northern top corner of this zone with its dense plantation and altitude difference will be also a quiet reading /Meditation area with a view towards the entire garden.
It is a wide road which is only accessed by pedestrians but can be used for cars in case of emergency. The road is surrounded by greenery with trees on both sides. It is aligned with the axis of the holy trinity church keeping the only left historic pattern of the area.
The northern side of the alley is surrounded by book shops which are placed on a raised platform with different levels following the natural topography of the site still allowing universal accessibility for each. The shops’ courtyard is connected by steps for user’s convenience and the retaining walls separating the levels will be used as seats for visitors.
The Amphitheatre located at the northern side of the library is created taking the topography difference as an advantage. The seats are made of a combination of cast-in-situ concrete and grass strips.
The amphitheater faces the children’s library where the screen will be provided between columns to display different educational movies/documentaries, it can also serve as an outdoor extension of the children’s library for storytelling or similar activities.
Plazas are one of the prominent characters of modern libraries these days all around the world, changing libraries from historic quiet spaces to active urban communicating spaces. The terrace/plaza garden located on the front (east) side of the library serves as a bridge between the garden and the library interior, it’s an open place where library users flow out. The plaza is surrounded by the library colonnade on the west and by a cafeteria on the north and a knowledge garden on the east. The space is provided with concrete seats, bushes, and water features giving it an urban square character.
Part of the plaza area can also serve users as an outdoor extension of the cafeteria at the northern edge. The southern part of the plaza is used to pull passer-byes easily towards the garden and interact with users which will make it easier for them to use the library in the meantime.
Landscape lighting is also given special attention to get a nice night outdoor ambiance, safety, nighttime aesthetics, accessibility, security, recreation, and social/event uses since the library is expected to function 24 hours.
The lighting fixtures are designed in such a way to be hidden within bushes, seats, or rock formations and properly oriented to highlight the leaves in a tall tree or wash up a textural wall.