You might say this eye-opening library is a true pearl of wisdom.

The Tianjin Binhai Library in China is a breathtaking work of modern architecture which aims to inspire enjoyment of the arts.

The unique design of the five-level 33,700 meter square (362,743 square foot) building creates an eye when viewed from the outside. The contours inside create a shell holding a pearl at its center. This shell is made up of terraced layers of bookshelves, stacked on top of each other in curves that reach from the ground floor all the way to the ceiling.

The iris or pearl at the center is an auditorium, and the steps of the library do double-duty as seats for reading, contemplation and socializing. Inside the building, around the eye, there are also educational facilities, subterranean service spaces, book storage, and a large archive.

Tianjin Library
Credit: Ossip van Duivenbode/Courtesy of MVRDV

On the ground floor of the library space, visitors can enjoy dedicated reading areas for children and the elderly. The next two floors up offer reading rooms, books and lounge areas. The upper floors also offer meeting rooms, offices, and computer and audio rooms. The rooftop features restful patios.

The Tianjin Library was designed as part of a masterplan to both modernize and unify the various districts of the city, joining the old town with residential areas, commercial spaces and the government quarter. We asked designers MVRDV to describe the inspiration behind the project.

“As a practice, MVRDV is always interested in exploring and expanding on existing typologies especially in cultural project. And we like to think of how these spaces can be adapted to future users,” Bastiaan van der Sluis, Public Relations & Business Development, told Travel + Leisure. “Gone are the days of musty, carpeted room with outdated technology. Libraries provide a public means of accessing knowledge and can also be places of inspiration. For this project the main challenge was to create a design that was ambitious and rethink the typology for a library so it is no longer a dull and depressing environment. It becomes a social space that also promotes reading and inspiration.”

Tianjin Library
Credit: Ossip van Duivenbode/Courtesy of MVRDV

“The brief was to create a new library that was part of a larger masterplan to transform Tianjin Binhai cultural district into a world-class area between the city and public park nearby,” van der Sluis added. “The initial brief required a library and a sphere screen cinema. The idea is the ball pushes the space away to create the cave-like public atrium. The atrium connects the park in front and the public corridor behind.”

Whether the sphere auditorium at the heart of Tianjin Bihnal Library is an iris or a pearl is really in the eye of the beholder.

“This ‘pearl in the oyster’ or ‘pupil in the eye’ is a big sphere of light which is intentionally given an aura of mystery,” van der Sluis said. “Reviews describe it as an ‘ocean of books’ and the ‘most beautiful library of China.’ Comments on social media call the building a ‘sea of knowledge,’ ‘super sci-fi’ or simply as ‘The Eye.’”

Tianjin Library
Credit: Ossip van Duivenbode/Courtesy of MVRDV

MVRDV build as their “most rapid fast-track project to date,” with only three years passing between the first sketch and the opening. This speed led to some compromise on their original vision for the project, including giving access to the upper bookshelves from rooms behind the atrium.

Because of this, the books showing on the upper layers are made of perforated aluminium plates which are printed to look like books. Designers say that plans to open up access to those shelves may still be realized at some future date.

Keeping this sublime and soothing white space pristine requires cleaners to use ropes and movable scaffolding.

“Tianjin is a library intended to be a step in the direction for making libraries a more all-in-one space,” Van der Sluis said. “We expect visitors to feel a space for learning, consuming, sharing, creating, and experiencing, whilst at the same time, still retaining their core as spaces for knowledge exchange.”