Monday28 July 2014

Building study

Canada Water Library, London, by CZWG

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In spite of funding cuts and its lack of public-sector experience, CZWG has created an imaginative public library in London’s Docklands

’What we have to protect is not library buildings but library services,” culture secretary Jeremy Hunt told a select committee tasked with investigating the wave of library closures last month. Thirty-three libraries have closed in the last year, following cuts to local authority budgets, while the future of 600 others still hangs in the balance. Such savagery prompted co-ordinated action up and down the country, with organised mass book withdrawals, 24-hour vigils and occupation “read-ins” — a polite prelude to August’s riots.

“They are like a demonstration but friendlier, with story readings and someone there to entertain the children,” Lynne Copperstone of the Save Doncaster Libraries campaign told the Guardian.

Hunt may have a vision of dematerialised libraries, freed from the confines of walls and roofs, following the coalition’s anti-buildings strategy, along the lines of Gove’s plan for schools without classrooms. But in Southwark, the council has sent out the message that buildings still matter. The south London borough has retained all 12 of its existing libraries, and just opened a brand new one, designed by CZWG: the £14 million “jewel in the crown” of Canada Water on the Rotherhithe peninsula.

“A library is not just an extension of the public realm,” says Piers Gough, as we stand beneath a bright orange-painted concrete ceiling at the foot of a theatrically sweeping spiral stair within his new building. “It is a release from the intensity of school and work, a place to come and discover and dream. It is a portal to the discovery of other worlds.”

With such dreamy, sci-fi rhetoric comes a suitably alien form: the library stands like a spaceship crash-landed at the head of the dock, its inverted golden pyramid jutting out over the water. There is something slightly menacing about its looming presence — today less golden than a brooding gunmetal grey against the overcast sky. It looks as though it might be where the Mekon resides on his visits to the Docklands — which will no doubt fill children inside with glee.

The station-facing facade is punctuated by an uncomfortable grid of small windows.

Source: Tim Crocker

The station-facing facade is punctuated by an uncomfortable grid of small windows.

It is an intriguing new arrival to this fragmented land of boxy warehouses and twee vernacular nests. Canada Water is the northern third of what used to be Canada Dock, part of the Surrey Commercial Docks complex that once covered most of the peninsula. The docks were filled in during the 1970s and developed by Thatcher’s London Docklands Development Corporation with a palette of suburban cul-de-sacs and low-rise apartment blocks. Canada Water was retained as a wildlife amenity, around which shopping sheds sprawled in the 1980s, drifting on a tarmac sea of car parks, with a cinema, bowling alley and the Daily Mail print works scattered beyond in an attempt to make something of an out-of-town town centre.

The Jubilee line arrived here in 1999, with a shiny new glass rotunda by Buro Happold — embraced by the facets of Eva Jiricna’s bus station and joined last year by an upgraded Surrey Quays station 500m to the south — but it has since stood there rather lonely, with little community to serve.

The library represents the first part of a masterplan by British Land to tie these fragments together, bringing 2,000 new homes and patching up the ailing Surrey Quays shopping centre — although, judging from current plans, there is little evidence of ambition to make the stretch between these two stations a coherent piece of city. Blocks of Barratt flats by Glenn Howells have emerged across a grey granite plaza from the library, but they are squeezed so tightly that some balconies face directly on to the Underground air vent.

In the hands of CZWG, such infrastructural constraints have proved a serendipitous excuse for formal eccentricity. The library site is hemmed in by the dock wall to the south and the tube tunnel to the north-east, defining a tight footprint that would have necessitated a six-storey building if extruded. Southwark, meanwhile, wanted the whole library on one level. The architecture comes out of such conflicts: a section that flares out to cover twice its footprint and provide an expansive reading room, held aloft above the busy social world of café and auditorium below — as well as a new tube exit.

“Having a tube station within the building is a poetic and lovely thing,” says Gough. “But it is terribly difficult to achieve.” The western facade extends to envelop a flight of steps to the Underground, although the building bears the battle scars of involvement with Transport for London: clumsy standard-issue railings run along the back of the pavement, directly against the library’s glazed elevation.

“Lovely but difficult to achieve” could be the motto for this building, which carries throughout the hallmarks of being the first public project — bar a lavatory-cum-florist in Notting Hill — that CZWG has tackled since it was formed in 1975. At many junctions, the architect’s ambition for generosity and wit is sabotaged by its inexperience with the prosaic realities of the public sector.

Canada Water library by CZWG

Source: Tim Crocker

Canada Water library by CZWG


Cut-price grandeur

The envelope is wrapped with a continuous mesh of anodised aluminium that is progressively stretched open as it climbs up the building. Its old gold colouring comes from a desire to be “grand, but not profligate,” says Gough, aiming for “something modern but civic, that should feel it will be around for a long time.” The effect is somewhat flimsy, oozing a sense of bling on a budget.

The piazza-facing elevation is punctured with tall, slender, civic-scaled windows that protrude from the subtly canted wall like rocker switches. To the south, openings are cut deep into the building, shaded by the steep angle of the tilting facade, two balconies hanging like lowered drawbridges. The western, station-facing elevation is the least successful — strange, given it is the first sight of the building for most — and is treated with an uncomfortable grid of small office-like windows. “They are not right for the scale of the building,” admits Gough, who claims an idea to mask them by extending the mesh in an unbroken plane was scuppered by the planners.

Visitors access the building from two opposite sides — through slightly mean revolving doors, where you might expect broader sliding windows. This creates a promenade through the ground floor, animated by the contemporary library formula: a big café and an area devoted to the most popular books and DVDs. The south-eastern corner is given over to perhaps the building’s most important asset — a 150-seat auditorium, to be managed by the progressive Deptford-based Albany community theatre, where Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer started out. Painted a deep maroon, this fully equipped pentagonal theatre enjoys large double stage doors that allow big performances to spill out into the public piazza — not yet tested, given that the first event was an evening with Ben Fogle.



The most expressive feature of the ground floor is of course the sweeping stair, lined with acoustic oak-veneered ribs and hugging curving bookshelves at its base. This makes ascending two storeys to the reading room an alluring journey up to a place decidedly separate from the hubbub below. In between lies a secret floor of staff facilities, accessed from a separate core, where offices enjoy generous views over the water. The staff room is finished with lime-green walls and a beetroot carpet — entirely the employees’ decision, I am told — and the Albany is delighted to have a literal green room for its productions.

At the summit of the spiralling stairwell awaits a voluminous theatrical space, refreshingly at odds with the usual low-ceilinged municipal reading room. A lurid harlequin chequerboard carpet extends beneath a writhing soffit that swells to a pregnant bulge above the stair — reminiscent of Muf’s 1995 Purity and Tolerance installation at the Architecture Foundation, only here executed in rather clunky facets of acoustic board.

Gough explains the form as a product of the deep inverted truss needed to tie the wayward walls together magnified by his own expressionist hand, to create this “rather gorgeous droop”. Conical lightwells puncture the ceiling, although the extreme depth of the roof somewhat hampers their effectiveness — all lights are on in the middle of the day.

A perimeter of columns leans precariously inwards, as if propping up the droop, supporting a continuous gallery level that provides quiet working space alongside the reference collection, as well as access to a series of classrooms. Views are framed by the plunging ceiling line back down to the library floor, riddled with what Gough describes as the “wiggly snake alleys” of books, formed by a bespoke modular shelving system. Due to DDA compliance, these units can only rise to 1.3m, so the alleys unfortunately lack any real sense of enclosure for those over the age of eight.

Elsewhere on the library floor, the steeply canted walls are employed to house quirky shelving and stepped seating in the children’s section — where the carpet sensibly switches to colourful lino. The boxing-in of the outer structural columns at certain corners also creates little nooks and crannies, cubby holes that add to the playful nature of the space. Other by-products of the leaning form are not quite so happy: chunky galvanised railings have been bolted on outside each window, for maintenance safety purposes, while heating and cooling panels sit awkwardly on every surface, with a proliferation of radiators and vents, trenches and chill beams.

Ground floor plan

Ground floor plan

Top floor plan

Top floor plan

For a building specifically designed with passive solar shading in mind — its leaning walls block sun in summer and welcome it in winter — there seem to be an awful lot of grilles and appliances.

“Some things have slipped past the radar,” says Gough, although, in the main, such details don’t hamper enjoyment of the exuberant spaces, mistakes allowed for by CZWG’s “matter-of-fact baroque” approach. “Thank God we’re not hard-line modernists,” he sighs, as we pass another errant board of acoustic foam, stuck uncomfortably on the wall above a hulking boxed-in heating panel.

A dose of hard-line modernism might have brought some disobedient details into line, but it might also have killed the sense of fun that infuses every angle of this ebullient building. And it is already proving popular with locals — receiving more than 15,000 visitors in its opening week.

It is worth remembering that, for good or bad, the project is the product of a public-private partnership. Had it not been, procurement processes would most likely have ruled out appointing CZWG on the grounds that it had never built a library before. This brash, spirited practice made its name in the Docklands in the 1980s, with a series of power-dressed waterside apartment blocks, and it seems appropriate that its first major public building should see it return here, with equal bombast, in defiance of brutal cuts to this type of vital community facility.

Project team

Architect CZWG Architects, Client London Borough of Southwark, Planning consultant DP9, Structural engineer AKT II, Services engineer Hoare Lea, Environmental engineer Waterman Civils, Quantity surveyor Baqus Nigel Rose, Acoustic Sandy Brown Associates, Main contractor ISG Jackson




Readers' comments (1)

  • LSA Projects had the pleasure to supply the Dalhem acoustic wall ribs to the helical staircase and we are very proud to be associated with a truly superb building.

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