Thursday17 August 2017

Haworth Tompkins’ London Library

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Haworth Tompkins’ ongoing expansion of the London Library has clarified and enhanced its internal spaces while retaining the unique character of this historic literary institution

The London Library is now the largest independent subscription library in the world. Dedicated to the arts and humanities, it was founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle, who was frustrated by the lack of a serious lending library in London and averse to consulting reference books among the general public in the British Library. He quickly gathered like-minded subscribers and the library moved to a town house at its current location in 1845.

It was modernised radically in the 1890s but retained its private, residential typology as distinct from specialised library types developed as grand public buildings in the 19th century.

The faux-Jacobean Portland stone frontage wedged in the north-west corner of St James’s Square hides one of the first steel-framed buildings in London. Since then major additions in the 1920s, 30s and 90s, as well as constant adaptations, have created a sprawling internal labyrinth reaching out to Duke Street in the west and Mason’s Yard to the north.

Remarkably, the vast majority of over 1 million accumulated volumes are available for loan to members. Some would have passed through the hands of members and trustees such as Charles Dickens and TS Eliot. To enable free access to all of them and leave space for the gracious reading rooms that give the building its club-like atmosphere, a serious book storage method was needed. As BD’s own Tony McIntyre describes in his architectural history of the library, the real innovation was the multi-storey cast-iron book stacks: “a forest of densely packed, light iron columns, running up through four storeys to support a roof, and on the way supporting three grilled cast-iron floors, each only an inch in thickness.”

A long way from the virtual “library 2.0” or book-depleted “idea store” that has found favour in the world of public libraries, the physical presence of the books at the disposal of the serious researcher or for random discovery by the casual browser is essential. Even the subject-based cataloguing and shelving of books does not follow the conventional Dewey Decimal system. The concept of obsolescence is unknown here and texts are laid down like geological layers. For some of the Rowley Birkin types who wheeze their way through these bookstacks, this is a corner of St. James’ square that should never change.

Far from just being a redoubt of the privileged or eccentric, this rather unique and wonderful institution is open to all – in return for an annual subscription. According to its Royal Charter the charitable trust should perpetuate the library “by way of fees and other charges as are necessary to defray the expenses of the provision and maintenance thereof”. To this end Haworth Tompkins Architects was appointed in 2004 to masterplan the future expansion of the London Library. Phase two of four is now complete and fundraising continues for future phases which include extending one of the book stacks by three storeys upwards, and building a new rooftop reading and members room with terrace looking out over the lush greenery of St James’s Square towards the Mall.

Phase one involved the purchase and conversion of a 1970s brown-brick office block into new book stack areas, staff offices and a conservation studio. TS Eliot House, named after the former president, was altered on its northern facade with oversized glazed screens facing the dumb box of the White Cube Gallery in Mason’s Yard. These black margined panels overlap existing window openings like thick eyeliner. On the ground floor, space has been given over to a gallery and new bicycle storage for members.

Haworth Tompkins completed this in 2007, knocking a single link through the party wall to the library to the south. Now with major works finished to a 1930s extension between TS Eliot House and the Victorian building, five links have been established at different floors, cutting visibly through original steel girders and allowing even expansion of subject stacks. With a new plant room for the whole library installed in the basement of TS Eliot House, the scene was set for phase two, a much more involved surgical procedure in the older buildings to remove blockages, establish clearer circulation and renew services.

To make sense of what this involved is difficult, as during Graham Haworth’s tour around the reconfigured building I was disorientated. This is as would be expected of a “new boy”, but the intricacies of the old arrangement must have taken an even longer time to assimilate. Before a new stair and lift were installed, extending upper level vertical circulation of the thirties building downwards, the only way into this extension was from a circuitous upper level route.

From the St James’s Square entrance, a few steps lead up to the high-ceilinged Issue Hall, restored and redesigned sensitively with desks and shelving in the same dark stained timber finish as the existing joinery. Craftily hidden turnstiles divide the entrance lobby area from the members’ area to the back where a new locker space to the left links to the higher level Mason’s Yard with disabled access via a platform lift.

The clarity of this interior is further enhanced by a newly cleared lightwell at the back of the space and a direct link to the grand main stair made possible by concealed fire curtains. Ascending this leisurely Jacobean stair, with doors off the half landing to book stacks behind, we encounter portraits of distinguished figures staring down from above the panelling. The magnificent reading room, the centre of the library, is set on the first floor where it overlooks the square. Here laptops are banished, although the adjacent Prevost Room in the thirties building, with its salvaged Robert Adam fireplace, has been converted from a committee room into another reading room.

As well as reinforcing or restoring the original character of these set-piece rooms, Haworth Tompkins has created at least two new rooms and comprehensively redesigned another. At the bottom of the lightwell a new reading room forms the heart of the new periodicals and societies section that now fills the whole of the underlying basement.

A new glass roof high above converts this into an interior space, while at low level perforated bronze acoustic panelling lines the room. Above this dado the patched brickwork and various styles of window perforate the walls, leaving the “scar tissue” as a register of the past in the same way as Chipperfield’s Berlin Neues Museum. Materiality is carefully judged – the dark stained joinery and burnished steel of the new doors and furniture complement deep red and purple carpets and painted plaster. In the new Times Room, reading spaces and bureaus allow readers to consult a complete set of bound copies of the newspaper and other journals that have been rationalised into rolling stacks and complemented by electronic cataloguing and storage.

The new art room is a double-height, shelf-lined space on the ground floor of the thirties building and has been totally redesigned. Translucent shelving supports the gallery floor in a finely perforated steel decking; this is the only place where the use of new materials and technologies seems misjudged. Glass panel balustrades have coloured LED “mood lighting” more suitable to a TV studio set than a library. Natural light pours in from high windows on one side where the space has been extended with a sliver of new construction which also extends book stacks above. A muscular grid of concrete beams that supports the dense structural grid of shelving above has been thoughtfully retained by the architect after being revealed in the strip-out. A responsiveness that has been made possible by the use of a management contract.

These “formal” reading spaces outnumber the “informal” desks scattered throughout the stacks, some are hidden in dark corners – others next to an opening window with a breeze overlooking the inner court. Chairs have been customised with toboggan skids to prevent legs falling through the grates and individual reading lamps designed by a trustee have been assembled from bespoke milled components. Somehow it fits into a glorious English tradition of garden-shed engineering.

The whole process of construction has been ad-hoc, closing off various spaces while the library continues to function. Demolition has proceeded in a similar fashion to coal mining: rubble passed out through holes in walls; components similarly man-handled in like mine props. Future extension of the 1890s book stack will make use of a similar proto hi-tech system of components, bearing directly on the cast iron column heads. Paxton’s Crystal Palace was built in a similar way from small pieces that could be hoisted by manpower alone.

Until this upward extension and the roof-top members’ room is finished there are almost no outward manifestations of Haworth Tompkins’ work – and even these will only really be visible from the inner courtyard. If this project were to be recognised in some way it would be for the overall experience of the whole complex and not for a particular image or object. In this modesty is the project’s success.

Original print headline - Independently minded


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