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From the archive: British Library in London by Colin St John Wilson and MJ Long

Fold out spread

In memory of MJ Long who passed away on 3 September, we revisit Sherban Cantacuzino’s study of the designs for the proposed British Library from AR December 1978

To understand the Government’s intention of building as soon as possible the first phase of a 2,000,000 sq ft library at an overall cost of £164,000,000 on the old Somers Town rail depot site west of St Pancras Station, a number of historical facts need to be recalled. Since its inception in 1753, the British Museum has always been under pressure to expand: there has never been enough room to house all the collections. When the Grenville Library was acquired in 1847, its volumes had to be stacked on the floor of the manuscripts department. By 1850 readers numbered nearly 80 000, an all but fourfold increase since the start of Robert Smirke’s building in 1823. Sydney Smirke’s great reading room (1852-57) was able for a while to contain this phenomenal growth which reached 600,000 printed books by 1860, 1,500,000 by 1888 and, with the installation of sliding presses, 3,000,000 on 46 miles of shelving by 1910. An annual rate of 1 ¼ miles of additional shelving in 1950 has risen today to an annual two miles or a million books every seven years. No wonder there are people who advocate the dismemberment of the great central library and the development of smaller specialist libraries linked electronically. or direct communication by computer between the library and people’s homes. To which two arguments have so far proved conclusive, that to microfilm every document (the new British Library will have room for 25,000,000 books) would cost more than a new building and that primary sources, in which the British Library is uniquely rich, will always want to be studied at first hand.

British library 2

British library 2

The corollary to the museum’s relentless growth has been a repeated tendency to disperse. Much has been made of the museum’s unitary character, a principle on which it was founded. In fact dispersal started early: paintings to the National Gallery (1825), natural history (the backbone of the eighteenth century museum) to the Natural History Museum (1883), newspapers to Colindale in north London (1905) and ethnography to Burlington Gardens (1970). Establishing the independence of the Library at St Pancras can thus be seen as the latest in a number of similar moves.

‘That is surely the right approach – not “the search for the extraordinary”, but the translation of man’s complex needs into life-enhancing architectural form’

There is nothing surprising in wanting to house the Library in a separate building. What is surprising, even in the context of the museum’s difficult past, is that it has taken so long. For just as the early growth in size and variety of the collections quickly rendered the unitary principle unworkable, so the number of books and readers today can no longer be contained within ‘a unified single great room whose walls (hold) books’. Today millions of books are housed in unsatisfactory atmospheric conditions 10 miles away at Woolwich and the service in the reading room, despite the indefatigable attitude of the Librarians. falls lamentably short of the standards expected of a national library. Those doom-mongers, therefore, who argue that modern architecture has failed to solve society’s social and planning problems and who don’t want a new library, would have to accept an old library of increasing inefficiency which would also consume an increasing amount of public money.

British library 3

British library 3

British library 4

British library 4

The first post-war scheme (Martin and Wilson, 1964) embodied the principle of multiplication and specialisation by the inclusion of several reading rooms of equal importance. It was a grand urban design which would have opened up a vista from Hawksmoor’s tower to Smirke’s colonnade and created the first large formal open space in London since Trafalgar Square. But like nearly all grand designs in England, it failed. Even Greenwich. the only built example, was never satisfactorily resolved with its ‘two great domes facing each other across an avenue which leads to practically nothing’. Whether the Martin-Wilson plan was finally rejected because of the Englishman’s innate distrust of something they do on the Continent, or because of the petty political manoeuvring of an insecure Government remains a matter of interpretation. In October 1967, under pressure from the local MP and the Borough of Camden, the Government abandoned the Bloomsbury site. Eighteen months later the Dainton Committee, whose main job was to make recommendations for a unified library framework, reported that this site remained the most suitable: and in March 1970 the same government that had rejected the Martin-Wilson plan accepted Dainton’s recommendations and commissioned a new plan from Colin St John Wilson.

The second scheme (1973), which occupied a smaller area but incorporated the very substantial addition of the science library, gave the impression of overloading the site. It was less grand, though it made its own formal contribution in the relationship of the stepped terrace housing to the opened-up east end of Hawksmoor’s church. Both the first and second schemes adopted a site south of the museum, because post-war planning had recognised the need to preserve Bedford Square. which would have been affected by J. J. Burnet’s earlier plan.The second scheme, which also preserved the west side of Bloomsbury Square by fitting all the accommodation on to a reduced site, was killed stone dead by conservationists who wanted to preserve everything.

British library 11

British library 11

British library 6

British library 6

If the first scheme was a unique opportunity to create order and beauty out of chaos, it is only fair to point out that this chaos represented the multifarious, small-scale, supporting activities which exist round the British Museum but round none of the other museums in London. Second, to return to national characteristics, the South Bank Arts Centre must by now have confirmed most educated Englishmen in their abhorrence of cultural ghettoes. To fragment, therefore, must be considered to enrich one part of the city without impoverishing another. And third, to de-monumentalise the library as a result of fragmentation might then be deemed more in keeping with a use that is no longer a ritual comparable to the theatre or concert halI. These are some of the arguments which Professor Wilson uses to illuminate his latest design on the Somers Town site, some 15 minutes walking distance north of the British Museum. The design grew out of the brief on the one hand, and out of the constraints and characteristics of the site on the other. The brief indicated the need for two contrasting ranges of buildings and a central entrance area to unite them. This single entrance is a gain over the first two schemes which, in order to preserve a pedestrian connection from the church to the museum, were split into two elements, each with its own entrance. The ‘legibility’ of this necessarily complex entrance area, remains of crucial importance to the success of the building in use.

British library 8

British library 8

British library 9

British library 9

The central entrance area must also resolve the clash of geometries between the two ranges. For the site is wedge-shaped and the two ranges, in following this shape, appear to collide. Their strongly differentiated forms result from the embodiment of totally different requirements. The west range, set back to comply with the local planning authority’s requirement of a public place, comprises a series of closed-access, galleried reading rooms with pitched roofs and top light-specific spaces made for people who use them for long periods, and roof forms which can dip to a low eaves line opposite the pre-war LCC housing in Ossulston Street. The east range comprises office accommodation, and the science library with its open-access reading rooms structured for people making rapid searches. It is designed on a modular grid, with constant ceiling heights, to provide adaptability between reading and office areas. The horizontality of its layered section stands in contrast to Scott’s St Pancras and, where it juts forward on to Euston Road, its flat roofline is terraced down to allow views of the older building from the forecourt.

Wilson is emphatic about the disparity of the two ranges. In the design process several hypotheses were explored, because ‘the best criticism of one design is another design’. What emerged was the need to break down the building into a number of parts, not only to make a very large building look smaller, but to give it the variety and vitality which one might hope for in a growing building. At the risk of oversimplifying the problem, there seem to be three fundamental requirements for the success of the building. One of these, the design of the entrance area, has already been mentioned. The other two relate to the closed-access reading rooms. Here the majority of readers will congregate and here will be tested that mechanical efficiency which is now lacking. It is reassuring to know that the purpose of the very first stage of building is to gather together all the material now dispersed, and to install a system that should deliver a book within 15 minutes. Finally, it is the quality of space of the reading rooms – the psychological comfort of the reader – by which the new building will be remembered. Taking up Summerson’s point that ‘the programme as the source of unity is … the one new principle involved in modern architecture’, Wilson calls for a deeper understanding of what the programme stands for today and, quoting Aalto, for a projection of ‘rational’ methods from the technical field out to human and psychological fields.’ That is surely the right approach – not ‘the search for the extraordinary’, but the translation of man’s complex needs into life-enhancing architectural form.

British library 14

British library 14

British library 15

British library 15

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Read about libraries and other buildings for books previously published in the AR here