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The Women's Library by Wright & Wright, London

Founded in 1926 by Millicent Fawcett, the distinguished campaigner for women’s rights, the Women’s Library began life in a converted pub in Westminster. Emerging out of the suffrage movement, it has since evolved to become the UK’s most comprehensive research library covering all aspects of women’s lives, from political activism to domestic minutiae.

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Its collection, some of which dates back to the sixteenth century, is of international significance and includes banners, photographs, posters, papers and artefacts documenting the campaign for the vote, social, political and medical history and domestic affairs . In 1977 the collection was acquired by the City of London Polytechnic (now London Guildhall University) and its latest home is on the site of a former Victorian public baths in the East End which has been sensitively and inventively remodelled by Wright & Wright.

The new building extends its archival role to encompass a museum and cultural centre, together with a range of education and conference spaces. Beyond conventional scholarship and research, it also has a wider educational and regenerative remit with in the notoriously deprived and marginalized London borough of Tower Hamlets.                  

Located on Guildhall University’s Whitechapel campus, the site straddles a gritty urban hinterland between the City and the East End, where changes of scale and character can be abrupt. Housing estates and street markets lie cheek by jowl with soaring office towers. Dating from 1846, the building contained public baths and wash houses, an important amenity and social focus in the Victorian East End.

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The locally listed façade on the east side of the original wash house is retained and partly wrapped around the new building, a fragment of the past linking women’s lives over the centuries. Behind this massive soot-coloured brick wall the new building steps up to a height of six storeys. Drawing on the functional spirit of the wash house, new parts are executed in taut, Kahnian planes of russet brick and sensuous copper which will patinate gracefully and gradually over time.

Despite its cramped site and disparate neighbours, the building responds thoughtfully to its surroundings. On the north side, a small courtyard garden planted with slender birch saplings gives a degree of privacy to an adjacent housing block. To the west, another courtyard will link the library to a new law department and community school, currently under development.

To the south , the building adjoins an existing university building. Articulated by a series of new openings punched into the ground floor, the east side forms the library’s main street frontage . Heavy sliding steel grilles screen the openings, but also allow views into the entrance hall beyond.

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The various spaces interlock with the elegant complexity of a Chinese puzzle. The basic parti consists of a series of large rooms framed by two structural cores running along on the east and west sides of the building. On the east side, the core is set back from the existing wash house wall, with the entrance hall and a cafe (at first floor level) placed in between. The most obviously public areas, such as the exhibition hall, seminar room and multi-purpose space are located on the lower floors, with the more private and scholarly domains- library, archive and staff offices on the upper storeys.

The largest set-piece space is a luminous double-height exhibition hall, which opens up to the elongated garden courtyard on the north side. Within the hall, a seminar room forms a separate stone clad container, a building within a building. Spaces overlap and interact so that the exhibition hall can be used as a foyer for the seminar room.

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Changes of scale are orchestrated to suit the different types of exhibits. Large suffrage banners, for instance, are arrayed in a dramatic I5m high toplit shaft, while smaller objects such as badges, medals and letters occupy display glass cases in more confined spaces so that they can be viewed intimately at close quarters.

The exhibition hall can also be contemplated from the multi-purpose space nestling beneath an oak-lined vault on top of the seminar room at first floor level. This is another self-contained space that can be adapted for various functions, such as teaching, seminars and entertainment. Materials are consistently rich- deep red handmade clay brick, creamy Tad caster stone, American white oak and grey steel and beautifully worked, so that the interiors have the feel of an exquisitely crafted casket.

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Winding up the service core on the east side, the main public staircase is lined with handmade brick softened by an intricate play of shadows radiating through a gridded steel cage enclosing the central well. The stair leads to the first floor cafe which is slotted into the oblique geometry of the site and takes advantage of the row of tall arched openings in the existing wash house wall.

The symmetrical, barrel-vaulted hall of the library reading room occupies the floor above. Large windows at high level give views of the sky and admit cool north light, while small vignettes provide glimpses of the East End, including a framed view of Hawksmoor’s famous Christchurch which can be surveyed from the study desk for viewing special objects. The main archive is housed above the library stacks (there is also additional space in the basement), with the topmost floor containing staff offices.

Underpinning the project is a serious commitment to reduce energy use, manifest in the employment of a masonry structure (with high thermal mass) and natural ventilation. Most spaces are naturally ventilated with opening windows positioned away from direct sunlight. Where possible, all spaces are daylit supplemented with low energy sources of artificial lighting. The building envelope is highly insulated, reducing heating demand.

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The resolution of the building’s structure, environmental control and spatial organization led to the development of a complex section of heavyweight construction. The archives (which must be held in a highly secure, environmentally controlled atmosphere) are contained on the third floor in a sealed room that sits within the external walls of the building.

The walls of the archive are formed from concrete beams spanning between the two structural cores, creating a load-bearing black box. This arrangement allows the structure to be held clear of the party wall on the south side to form a shaft that brings diffuse light into the back of the exhibition hall. It also acts as a thermal chimney by which both the exhibition hall and library are ventilated and cooled.

The archives are also passively environmentally controlled, reducing the need for complex air-conditioning and dehumidification systems, except in a small film archive. The masonry walls are lined with heavy concrete blocks and separated from the rest of the building by a vapour barrier, so minimizing changes in temperature and humidity. Engineers Ove Arup & Partners estimate that this will reduce the archives’ energy consumption to around 20 per cent of conventional demand.

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Beyond the laudable technical aim of reducing energy use, the building is enlivened by the work of several artists and craftspeople, who have collaborated with the architects since the project’s inception. Eight artists were commissioned to make pieces representing significant women such as Elizabeth Garret Anderson, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Jekyll.

The pieces will be inserted into the steel grid of the main staircase, so that the lightwell will be gradually filled with gorgeous individual objects. More are planned. Jeweller Anna Gordon, who made pieces for the stair, was also commissioned to make a clock for the reading room and door panels in silver and gold, underscoring the strong honorific quality of the interior.

Light artist Martin Richman designed a sign for the building that hangs in one of the vacant openings of the retained facade. It represents a book being hurled out of a window- a reminder, perhaps, that protest is an essential constituent of social progress.

Fact File

Architect: Wright & Wright Architects
Photographs: Peter Cook/VIEW

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