Competiton for a New Library

Alexandria, Egypt

Judith DiMaio with William Jack Palmore

Client: UNESCO sponsored competition for a New Library in Alexandria, Egypt.

Statistics: 78,232 sq meters; 7 stories (main library block)

Materials: exterior walls--Aswan granite and limestone

Team: Sophie Harvey, Myriam Bellazoug, Sally Gilliland, Daniel Lawler


The aspiration of the competition was to rebuild the famous, ancient Library that stood on the Silesian peninsula facing the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. DiMaio and her co-venture partner realized the importance of harking to the power of the past, the history, the materials available and once available to the Ancients: sandstone and pink granite from Aswan.

The program for circulation desks, security, reading rooms and book storage was complex. The design finds inspiration from the weight of masonry construction and figural relationships creating spaces and sequences and an architectural promenade.

Site strategy

The initial site strategy was to ‘crank’ the primary facade to face the sea and the castle which now sits on the site of the Great Lighthouse. That wall of colossal, free-standing columns contained the private carrels for reading and research, each carrel with one carved-out window facing the lighthouse site. The poetic intention was to provide for knowledge and the memory of the past where the littlest thing, ‘the book’ and mind were housed in the biggest thing, the column of influence and prestige.

Use of masonry

This massing and sculptural wall facing the sea is dovetailed about a grouping or pile up of long, slender columns as a transition to the entrance wall which is at right angles to the great sculptural wall. Deployment and composition of this wall were derived from such facades as the Ca’ d’Oro, Venice, where symmetries shifted centers and perspectival implications harmonize to create balance.

The facade

Thematically the facade includes roundels in granite supporting cut-out reliefs of great literary figures from both the past and modern Egypt. A planetarium, the round, confronts and is trapped in the flat, all, of course, derived from trans-historical cross-overs and synthesis.

Public benefit

Though the primary directive was to build up the site where there was an existing civic center, and extend a magnificent garden out onto the peninsula itself, the mission of both DiMaio and UNESCO was to elevate the quality of life for the people of Alexandria by developing the waterfront and providing the site with a powerful reminder of the Library's original significance as the First Library.


The competition entry was exhibited at Yale University’s School of Architecture and an essay in Colin Rowe’s book, As I was Saying, Volume III, provides a critical review of the competition and its aspirations.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina


Pharos Alexandria, Johann Fischer von Erlach, 1721

Design for a Temple of Equality

Jean-Jacques Lequeu, 1793-1794

Ca' d'Oro, Venice, Venetian Gothic, 1430

Photo by Fratelli Alinari, ca. 1880

Click plan to see it full-size

Click drawing to see it full-size

Click elevation to see it full-size

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Clay site model with the ramped promenade leading onto the garden peninsula

Site strategy: orientation of the main library block towards the site of the ancient Pharos

Initial concept sketch on yellow trace, the library block plan at grade

Ground plan with the entry ‘gate’ leading to the library block, the international study center, the exedra, and the existing auditorium

Top to bottom

• Elevation of the colossal column wall, as seen from the Pharos

• Cross section through the stacks (left) and the reading rooms and public spaces (middle and right)

• Elevation of the entry loggia, with the library stacks above

• Section cut along the garden peninsula through the exedra to the giant columns (the inner columns house the reading carrels), the circulation spine and planetarium, with the rare book rooms above, and through the stacks, on the far right

Study sketch of the main floor or great reading room, with the colossal columns confronting the lighthouse (Pharos) beyond

Sketch by William Jack Palmore

Prismacolor study sketch of the main elevation of the library proper

Sketch by Judith DiMaio

Study sketch of the library stacks building, transitioning from left to right—from the more traditional approach to Modernist overlays of gridding and surface.

Sketch by William Jack Palmore and Judith DiMaio

Section detail throiugh the Planetarium with rare book rooms above

Typical upper floor plan

Lisa Tannenbaum

Jock Pottle