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New Bodleian Library by Giles Gilbert Scott

Editor JM Richards, under the pseudonym James MacQueady, provides sharp criticism of Gilbert Scott’s New Bodleian Library

Originally published in AR October 1940, this piece was republished online in June 2015

These monthly articles are frankly about aesthetic questions. They are written in the belief that the rational and scientific basis of architecture has now been fully re-established by modern architects, and that matters of external appearance are therefore once more a proper topic of architectural criticism. This month the author takes an important recent building, the new Bodleian Library at Oxford, and examines it, not from the point of view of the technical man who is interested in its constrution or the librarian who is interested in its planning, but from that of the Man in the Street who can judge only what he sees.

One of the severest tests modern architecture has to face comes when the site is a university city, or any place with a strong inherited architectural character. It is a test of integrity as well as manners, for I have no hesitation in saying that the architect should have the courage of his convictions and not try to compromise with the conventions of the past, as a mistaken gesture of respect. Nothing, as a matter of fact, is so insulting to architecture deserving of respect than to parody it in its own stronghold - far better pay tribute to the unchanging principles it stands for by setting up beside it something as worthy of the best our time can do as it is of its own time.  

The opposite method, that often practised by the Victorians, which consists of careful copyism, carried out with such fanatical pedantry that there is in fact no possibility of resemblance to the supposed prototypes, is richly exemplified in our ancient universities: in Oxford alone one can instance Waterhouse’s work at Balliol, Gilbert Scott’s at Exeter and Sir Thomas Jacksons Examination Schools* but the universities also contain many instances where courageous building for the builder’s own time is supremely justified. The most celebrated is, perhaps, the view of King’s College, Cambridge, from the Backs, where the Gothic chapel and the Classical Gibbs’ building stand side by side in perfect harmony and dissimilarity.  

New Bodleian Library2

The main entrance, near the corner of the building but ingeniously planned to utilize the existing axis of the Clarendon build­ings. This photograph illustrates the strangely mixed style of detail characteristic of the building: the Baroque doorway, the windows with square stepped reveals in moderne style and the upper windows behind the parapet separated by pilasters bearing stylized sculptural ornament.

The principle of honesty to our age admitted, however, we are still left with the peculiar difficulties that building in a university city entails; for in a subtler sense the existing standards of architecture must still be conformed to.  The very presence in one city of so many distinguished buildings - albeit of mixed period-and the fact that these represent a more consistent corporate life than modern cities generally possess, produces an atmosphere - a ready formed character, if you like - that has nothing to do with the trappings of architectural styles but which is none the less an architectural quality. To pay due regard to the existence of this atmosphere is not to compromise with the past; it is simply to look at a new building as part of an existing whole, but one in which the geographical unities predominate over the chrono­logical.

This is a difficult world for modern architecture to compete with as its quality is so bound up with those associational values and atmospheric overtones that the architecture of a transitional age has not yet had a chance to acquire. But it is not, I repeat, a matter of style. I would define the particular qualities a modern university building should have some­what as follows. First, absolute integrity in the method it employs to get its effects; nothing is more out of place than clever tricks. Secondly, a deadly simplicity; for only by concentrating attention on the essentials of the work can its truth to its own time be made effectively to tell, alongside the assured elaboration of its neighbours, which latter is justified by the centuries of right they have on their side. Any kind of pretentiousness will lead to immediate downfall: as in the case of the young spark making his way in society, who is wise if he affects a becoming simplicity rather than a flashiness his standing does not warrant. Thirdly, it should pay careful attention to local precedent in matters of material, scale and siting so that the existing architectural unity is not upset. In order again to make my meaning quite clear I repeat that using a traditional material does not mean contriving some kind of compromise design. The material can be used in a straightforward modern way; it is only that, as a matter of general conformity, one would not use an aggressively experimental or synthetic facing material in a city, like Oxford, that is dominated by fine stone buildings, any more than in Cambridge, with its characteristic low fenland skyline, one would deliberately upset its reticent scale with an enormous tower. 

‘This pattern of stonework, which belongs to the Cotswold manor house, has nothing to do with the dignified urbanity, expressed in smooth ashlar-work, of Oxford’

Oxford University has just acquired one of the most important additions to its architecture of recent years in the shape of the new Bodleian Library, designed by Sir Giles Scott. Let us see how it fulfils the conditions I have just set out. First, the question of material. Sir Giles has quite rightly faced his building with stone. Now a lot of the charm of stone, in Oxford as elsewhere, lies in the patina it acquires with age. But age, I am afraid, is the only recipe for this patina, and I cannot help thinking that it was a mistake to have tried to compensate for the initial lack of it by an assumed rusticity of texture. The building has rough surfaced rubble walls composed of small irregular-sized stones that certainly produce some immediate charm of surface; more immediate, that is, than if the effect of time had solely been relied on. But it appears to me to be only a synthetic charm, and moreover one that will become more tiresome instead of ·mellower with age. This pattern of stonework, which belongs to the Cotswold manor house, has nothing to do with the dignified urbanity, expressed in smooth ashlar-work, of Oxford. 

Another quality I have suggested that a building in this situation should have is simplicity - or perhaps reticence would be a better word. I feel the new library fails in this through being over-designed. A conscious striving after good taste always defeats its purpose, and here it produces a fussiness that is aggravated by the oddness of the scale, especially when the building is seen against the dignified grandeur of the Clarendon and Sheldonian buildings opposite. The elaborately modelled facades, combined with rather infelicitously squat proportions, produce an unfortunate air of vulgarity, rather ­ to revert again to a human analogy ­ as frills and flounces of however much intrinsic charm, instead of disguising the lack of an aristocratic figure, actually make it more apparent. This particularly applies to that curious range of pilasters, crowned by a heavy entablature, along the Broad Street front, resembling a series of shop windows. They are detailed like an Oxford Street department store but in fact having no existence except as an architectural conceit. Conceits like this have their place, but they must rise to the occasion, catching the spirit of the fantasy to which they owe their origin. Here I see only the pedestrian spirit of architectural elaboration serving as a token of respectability. 

There are some things about the general massing of the building that I like. It has obviously been designed with care in relation to at least two of its approaches. The main entrance is well placed on the axis of the old Clarendon buildings-and as this axis strikes almost the corner of the site it must have needed skilful handling to utilize it; and the view from Holywell Street shows real imagination, particularly in the way the projecting block at the west end of the Broad Street elevation breaks forward to provide a terminating point to a receding facade that composes well in perspective. This is site planning in its proper sense, though I am puzzled by the strange method of filling the triangular space left in front of the Broad Street facade by this break forward. Instead of being planted in some way, or otherwise made use of, this triangle of ground is raised to a level of about three feet above the pavement - just too high to sit on - in the form of a solid stone platform, forbidding in appearance and at close quarters making an unsatis­factory base to the building, as its arbitrary outline is quite at variance with the precise geometrical silhouette of the superstructure. 

New Bodleian Library

The elaborately modelled Broad Street facade with the rather puzzling classical framework to the ground floor windows. In front of these windows is the stone platform, referred to in the article, that occupies the triangular space formed by the breaking forward of the extreme west corner

Another thing that is puzzling, seeing the understanding of three dimensional composition that has gone to the building up of this Broad Street facade, is why the other principal facade, that to Parks Road, is treated in a much more academic way as a symmetrical elevation with a strong centre of interest, when the street is so narrow that this facade is never seen except at an acute angle, and its axial planning therefore never tells. There is, in fact, in several parts of the building a conflict between conventionally symmetrical planning and real site planning of the kind observed on the Broad Street side. This is finally revealed in such more distant views as can be obtained - say from the courtyard in front of the Radcliffe Camera - when the dominating mass of the building is seen to be the huge central book stack rising squarely from the middle of the site - this cannot be seen from Broad Street-which is given an emphatic axis by its two ends being raised a little to form balustraded pavilions, but an axis quite unrelated to the unsymmetrically developed facade at the base of it. 

Finally, I am puzzled by the strangely various detailing throughout the building: the inconsistency, for instance, between the conventional classical detail of the range of pilasters along the Broad Street front that I have already referred to, the much more romantic ­ not to say theatrical-treatment of the ornamental entrances, the whimsical gable of the gardener’s cottage in Parks Road and the relatively severe detailing of the upper windows, which have reveals composed of a series of square set-backs more typical of l’art moderne than of the romanticized Renaissance idiom the rest of the building is based on.

Dare one suggest that this very inconsistency of detail is the key to the strangely immature character the whole design seems to have? One knows from his other work Sir Giles’s great abilities as a designer, and the consistency ­ not to say – orthodoxy of his scholarship. Can one interpret his rather cavalier attitude to the niceties of style on this occasion as representing his contri­bution to contemporary emancipation”? Offered by the times he lives in an inch of freedom from the customary pedantry of university architecture, is he taking an ell: freedom to substitute an improvised charm for any architectural system at all? If so, the building is an illustration of the fact that architecture is not a personal art. Even the greatest talent cannot steal the thunder of the moderns by accepting the liberties they offer without the responsibilities as well, responsibilities, which include the modern equivalent of the eternal verities: scale, proportion and the like. Modern emancipation is not intended to make architecture easier and vaguer, but more precise-only in a creative instead of an antiquarian way. Charm, in short, is not enough: it is the flesh of architecture without the bones. 


* In this unavoidably sweeping generalization I do not intend to condemn all the Victorian work at Oxford. That carried out in a revived style but possesslng original architctural character of its own, I would place in a different category. Cockerell’s Taylorian building, Butterfield’s Keble chapel ­ even Woodward’s museum - may have been designed in pursuit of unsound ends, but they are far from being the product of blind antiquarianism. 

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