Dutch design firm Mecanoo has published its plans for Macao’s Central Library project in Tap Siac Square. Expect a new building with an impressive façade that integrates event spaces, reading areas and digital zones when it opens in 2025.
Macao residents love to read and they love borrowing their books from the city’s 17 libraries. In 2018, these libraries were visited 2.8 million times by Macao’s more than 660,000 residents, as well as visitors from overseas. In 2019, that number soared to around 3.4 million. It dropped again last year to nearly 2.2 million due to the COVID-19 pandemic but, despite this decline, the libraries’ online platforms were busier than ever as residents stayed at home for periods due to the city’s pandemic control measures. The government’s electronic library resources – featuring access to e-books, e-magazines, children’s learning materials and an array of databases – received 1.6 million clicks, which is an increase of more than 3 per cent compared to 2019.
To highlight just how much readers in Macao missed visiting their local library last year, over the 14-day Chinese New Year period in February this year – when all 16 public libraries were open – there was a total of 110,000 visits recorded. To add to this, last month was the annual Macao Library Week – technically a celebration of reading that was run over a number of weeks – and, over the period, more than 17,000 books were collected during the event’s highly anticipated ‘book exchange’ event. It was heralded as a successful event and showed just how much Macao’s residents love reading, love their books and love their libraries.
Aside from the books that line the shelves inside the city’s libraries, these buildings can also be a treat for the eyes on the outside. Macao has no shortage of architecture that offers a peek into the city’s East-meet-West heritage – and its libraries also demonstrate how keen the SAR is on conserving its architectural history. The Patane Library on the northwestern edge of the Macao peninsula, for instance, sits in a typical coastal arcade structure of the Inner Harbour that’s been around for more than 80 years. Then there’s the Red Market Library – which is more inland than the Patane but fairly close by – that opened in 2012 in a former Post Office branch. The exterior is not only of architectural value but the library’s interior also preserves elements of the old post office. And then there’s Coloane Library, a Portuguese building that was constructed in 1911 and once served the city as Coloane Public Elementary School.
In addition, some of Macao’s libraries are dotted around the city’s historic centre which was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005. The largest of all is the magnificent Sir Robert Ho Tung Library, which is just up the road from Senado Square. It opened in 1958 but the building was constructed before 1894. It’s named after the famous Hong Kong businessman and philanthropist as, after his death in 1956, his descendants carried out his wishes in his will by bequeathing the building, which he owned, to Macao’s government so it could be opened as a public library that collects Chinese books.
Senado Library is another architectural gem in the World Heritage area. It sits inside the Municipal Affairs Bureau Building that overlooks Senado Square and is based on the design of the Biblioteca do Convento de Mafra in Portugal, with a strong luxurious classical style at play. It opened in 1929 and boasts a valuable collection of books, including rare tomes from the 17th to the mid-20th centuries. This was once the predecessor to the Macao Central Library – perhaps the most important library of all in the city.
The Central Library was established in Macao in 1895. It was initially part of the Liceu de Macau, which was the local Lusophone high school, and it was housed in St Augustine’s Church in the heart of the peninsula but it relocated often over the following years. In 1917, it was transferred to St Joseph’s Seminary and in 1929, it was again moved inside the Leal Senado building. In 1983, it was transferred to a building in Avenida do Conselheiro Ferreira de Almeida, near the famous Tap Siac Square, where it still stands today. It was officially named the Central Library in 1994 and received an interior renovation in 2007. In the same year, Macao’s government announced that a replacement library would be built. And now,
that’s one step closer along the road to happening.
You will go into the new library to have a cup of coffee and talk to a friend. Or you will go to see an exhibition or lecture. It will be a multifunctional space.
There have been several updates to the new Central Library project since 2007 but the final plans are only just coming to fruition now. In March, the government announced that Dutch design practice Mecanoo had been chosen to design the new library. It won’t be far from the existing library – just across Tap Siac Square, in fact. It will replace the Hotel Estoril building – which is scheduled to be demolished over the next few years – that was designed by Macao-born Portuguese architect Alfredo Victor Jorge Álvares in 1962 and was the first-ever gaming resort in the city. The modernist hotel building has been vacant since the 1990s so the new Central Library will be a welcome addition when it opens in 2025. The entire project is estimated to cost MOP 500 million (US$62.5 million) by the time it opens.
Mecanoo – which has designed libraries around the world, including in the US, the UK, the Netherlands and Taiwan – has already unveiled its designs for the new Central Library, which will feature an incredible gridded light-filtering façade that literally opens up like a book when viewed from Tap Siac Square. The government has already said that it’ll be a ‘multifunctional library in the 21st century’. Nuno Fontarra, architect and associate partner of Mecanoo, tells us about the firm’s concepts when it comes to the new library designs. He says it will be 15,000 square metres in size and will have four levels. He also says that there will be an array of areas inside the facility including multimedia technology spaces, a children’s reading area, a family library, a café and ‘a large number of smart facilities for the general public’.
Fontarra says that the inner design of the new library will be ‘a journey’ for the visitors who enter the building from Tap Siac Square. He says: “When you go into a normal building, you see stairs and you go around them. This is not the case [at the new library when it’s built]. If you go up the stairs, there’s a platform where you can see everything in the building, including the café. And then, when you take the stairs to the next level, you reach a reading room where you can look down. It gives you another perspective of the entrance space. Step by step, you go up. At every level, you get to review the library from a different perspective.”
The final design of the new library is yet to be confirmed but it will carry the memory of Hotel Estoril in its makeup. From the existing designs that have been made public, the library’s gridded white façade – which will reference the grids that adorn the front of the hotel – will be dramatic and eye-catching. The grids themselves will filter light through the library. Fontarra indicates that the façade design will be ‘very similar with that of the hotel’. “The pattern will be similar,” he says, “but we will make it denser because we want to filter in the light a little bit.” He adds that the new building will be different to Mecanoo’s library designs in Europe in terms of light as, in Macao, more shadow is needed, especially in the summer when the sun is strong during the day. The dense grids will provide much shadow in the library when the sun is glaring.
As the design is still at a relatively early stage, the materials used in its construction may yet change. However, Fontarra indicates that the intended white colour of the façade will be in keeping with Hotel Estoril’s colour scheme. He says: “If we use other colours, such as red and yellow, the library becomes another presence and something else. Using the same colour as the [hotel] building gives it continuity. You will still remember what was there before.” Hotel Estoril has a beautiful mosaic mural – designed by the late Italian sculptor and Macao resident Oseo Acconci, depicting the Roman goddess of chance, Fortuna – on its façade right now and Fontarra says this will be kept on show to remind the public of the hotel’s history.
Like an open book
The concept of the new library’s ‘open-book’ façade when viewed from Tap Siac Square literally signifies opening visitors up to the world of knowledge and ideas within the building. Fontarra says that he has spoken with many people in the past when designing libraries across the world and he has been told that in this digital age, young people may not be inspired to visit libraries any more as so much information is now available online. But he adds that the design at Macao’s Central Library is an open book as it reinforces the idea that libraries are open to more than just physical books. He says they are open to a whole world of knowledge and information.
He says: “When we started working on libraries 20 years ago, libraries were dying a bit because of the digital age. Libraries can change and become something else. They can become archives with many objects in stock. We don’t want an archive library at the Central Library, though. We want this to be a public library that covers a whole range of learning experiences.”
Some of the design ideas for the new central library actually came from librarians across the world who have worked with Fontarra on previous projects. He says that some librarians in the past have told him they ‘want to have an open library where we [the users] could take a book and read it outside’. So he has been encouraged to think about how to integrate spaces and that has helped shape the design for the new library. Different to traditional institutional libraries that only offer a quiet reading environment, the new library will be more of a space where people learn, express themselves and explore ideas. He says: “You don’t just go in to read a book. You go in to have a cup of coffee and talk to a friend. Or you go to see an exhibition or lecture. It’s multifunctional.” Fontarra says that visitors will be able to ‘walk around the blended spaces and get inspired’. He also mentions that the digital world will be present. For example, elderly visitors can use the computers in the library to learn how to master social media.
The ground floor, which will be the social hub of the library, will be made up of areas for teenagers and children, as well as multifunctional rooms and the coffee shop. The spaces will blend into each other, except for the children’s area. “The children’s library will be close to the café,” says Fontarra, “so the parents can have their kids with educators in the area and they can have coffee at the café at the same time.” As visitors go up to other levels, they will find more individual reading areas and study spaces. Fontarra continues: “We want everybody to be exposed to knowledge because everything becomes a mix now. We think it’s a welcoming place for people to come.”
The government’s Cultural Affairs Bureau is behind the new library project. The bureau has previously stated that the project is set to promote ‘the vitality of the whole public area’, referring to Tap Siac Square. According to Fontarra, buildings are ‘languages of years’ so the idea is to ‘bind’ the library building to the square. “We’re building a library that aligns with the heights of the other buildings around the square. We want to relate the library to the other buildings on a similar scale. We are actually making the square more of a square because a good square has good façades. We do a lot of communication with the square.”
Macao has developed a passion for reading and absorbing knowledge over the years. Many of the city’s libraries carry historical and fictional works from the East and West, providing an abundance of food for thought for local readers and thinkers. However, the new Central Library, when it opens in 2025, will be a library for the future, integrating spaces and creating an impressive façade in one of Macao’s most famous squares. There’s still a way to go but now that Mecanoo’s designs have been published, the next chapter in the SAR’s library history is being written, reinforcing the importance of knowledge alongside contemporary flair in the modern city setting. A literary adventure awaits us four years from now.