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Weston Library Renovation: Interview with Jim Eyre

With Wilkinson Eyre’s renovation of the New Bodleian complete, Rob Bevan asks how the practice negotiated such striking and contentious context

Second in size only to the British Library and one of the oldest libraries in Europe, the Bodleian Library in Oxford – affectionaltely termed ‘the Bod’ – has roots dating back to the 14th century. Since its construction, architectural heavyweights from James Gibbs’ Radcliffe Camera to Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Clarendon Building have been brought under the administrative umbrella of ‘Bodleian Libraries’, a smorgasbord of styles all found a stone’s throw from one another.

In the 1930s Sir Giles Gilbert Scott boldly squared up to these cultural landmarks with his designs for the New Bodleian, opening to a mixed reception and subject to incisive criticism in the October 1940 issue of The Architectural Review. What results is a rich meeting of the Neoclassical, Baroque, Arts and Crafts and an almost industrial Modernism characteristic of Scott: it is in this variegated context that Wilkinson Eyre’s renovation vies for attention, and in this it has succeeded.

Both a refurbishment and an enhancement of Scott’s original design, the newly titled Weston Library sits behind the New Bodleian’s original facade, providing a wealth of new facilities for readers, visitors and storage. Some changes are dramatic – the upper floors of the colossal central archival stack have been completely removed – while others respond to Scott’s original details. Here, Rob Bevan speaks to Jim Eyre on how the practice negotiated such a striking and contentious context.

Rob Bevan: What do you think of The Architectural Review’s original assessment of the former New Bodleian Library?

Jim Eyre: It is a very interesting starting point because it is a criticism about aesthetics not function. Reading it again, it takes a very patrician line, as if this architecture were a rude upstart. It is almost sneering at the building. Another critic described it as ‘a dinner jacket in tweed’. But the points it makes about the weathering and the patina of the rubble stone were probably true and it has had to be cleaned for this project. Oddities such as the plinth (where the new entrance steps are) and the placement of entrances are things that we pointed out without having looked at the article. There are comments in the piece about the mixing up of orders and its random decoration, but that is part of its charm.

WestonBlackwell

Blackwell Hall forms the heart of the new library, a publicly accessible space with café, information desk and a 15th-century gateway on permanent loan from the V&A Museum

RB: What did you think of Scott’s work at the outset of the project? And how did you connect Scott back to John Soane?

JE: I used to live in Liverpool and could not help but admire something as incredible as Scott’s Anglican Cathedral. It has those heroic, monumental proportions. And of course there is the library at Cambridge and Scott’s phone box based on Soane’s tomb.

I was looking at the morning room of the Soane Museum recently with its pendentive dome and the light filtering down the edges of it. This was reflected in an early version of our scheme where the underside of the central stack (above the internal Blackwell Court) was like a pendentive dome, with a slightly curved soffit and light coming down the edges; it was a bit like a giant version of Soane’s morning room, although the reference was not deliberate.

RB: Did your perception of the building change during the design process?

JE: Our initial thoughts about the building were that it had some nice things about it but it was a bit of an ugly building with some squat proportions. The Broad Street frontage was so heavy because the windows were so high up and it seemed obvious we needed to change this. But there is something quite elegant about the ground floor – the window proportions are clever. Introducing the entrance arcade makes it feel like a lighter building and re-joins it with the street. Now people are sitting on its steps instead of in the shade of the Clarendon opposite.

The Oxford urban sequence between the High Street and the ceremonial entrance door of the Weston on Broad Street – the ‘Pevsner Walk’ – is most extraordinary. It includes the raised Masters’ Garden at Exeter College and the space around the Radcliffe Camera – all that negative space. It is a remarkable piece of urban design.

The massing of the New Bodleian worked well – it disguises its 11-storey bulk, skilfully concealing it from Broad Street. This was Scott trying to be polite in a really tricky context, trying to modify his massive industrial monumentalist approach.

‘There can be instances when distinguishing new and old can go too far and you end up with a ridiculous, patchy building’

RB: At your recent Department of Earth Sciences building in Oxford, here at the Weston and at other projects such as Scott’s Battersea Power Station, you have continued to explore the atrium and deep light slot. Do they provide technical solutions or is this device used for other reasons?

JE: There are practical reasons such as the need at the Weston to moderate from bright sunlight at one end to the blacked-out exhibition spaces of 50 lux at the other. And, yes, I really like top-lit spaces but if you have a roof that is fully glazed there is too much light, it becomes like an office building or a shopping centre. The narrow slots, multiple rooflights and lime-washed plaster we’ve used at the Weston give a more gentle light. 

RB: What is your approach to integrating the new and the old – do you have a philosophy of accretive layering, or maintain a clear distinction between old and new?

JE: ‘We like the new to be self-evident but it is not doctrinal and we can be quite pragmatic about it. There can be instances when distinguishing new and old can go too far and you end up with a ridiculous, patchy building. The new entrance arcade on the Weston Library has turned the pilasters into [free-standing] columns and they look like they could always have been there and I’m OK with that. We didn’t need to make an intensely modern statement.

RB: The original New Bodleian was influenced by the latest thinking about libraries from the States, how was your Weston scheme influenced by your US library tour?

JE: We went to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin and the New York Central Library’s Cullman Center for visiting scholars where a courtyard has been filled in leaving a narrow gap around the perimeter, as well as Gordon Bunshaft’s amazing Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. It is a temple to books with this ethereal quality of light. Our ‘raised cloister’ references it (as does the British Library) by giving that visual message that you are in a library but at the Beinecke, you are outside the temple. It is a sanctuary space but the Weston is more for the public.

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A raised, cloister-like space is connected to the library via bridges, creating a sanctuary space

RB: Have you had to find ways to include Wilkinson Eyre engineering drama – such as the raised internal bridges/cloister?

JE: We use structure to exploit how you can manipulate spaces to create drama not because we like structure per se. At the Weston you can’t actually see the vierendeel trusses supporting the cloister and there is something exciting about not being able to tell immediately how it is done.

RB: How has the building been received?

JE: People have said some very nice things including David Attenborough and Simon Schama, and the readers are enjoying it. There were 30,000 visitors in the first week and that’s pretty good. I was awarded the Bodleian Medal which was a great surprise because it is normally awarded to literary figures and scholars who have promoted the interests of the library. Fittingly, it is made from copper reclaimed during the repairs of Duke Humfrey’s Library – the oldest reading room in the Bodleian.

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