The British Library, if nothing else, contains promise. Within it is the promise of the future of literary texts, the promise of growing culture, and also the promise of bringing up a neighborhood out of a somewhat grimy past. Some would say that the British Library cannot possibly succeed in transfiguring the area around it while at the same time becoming a centre for intellectual growth and culture. However, I think that with the slow expansion of the Library and the increase of transit to and from this destination, ultimately it is possible for books to bring on a revolution.
The British Library was designed by Sir Colin St. John Wilson and formally opened in June 1998. The Library, though not in a tourist-ridden area, lies on Euston Road, a street with relatively heavy foot traffic during the day. To the immediate east is St. Pancras Chambers (formerly the Midland Grand Hotel), Kingâ€™s Cross/St. Pancras Station. A few blocks west is University College Hospital, a small civic center, the Gagosian Gallery, and the Royal Academy of Music. To the north is a somewhat dilapidated residential area with a large portion of Council-owned housing (essentially projects, though perhaps somewhat nicer than the ones in the states), while to the south are the main University of London dormitories and, farther south, the more affluent Bloomsbury and Holborn areas.
The British Library seems to link the less affluent residential area of the north with the college dorm area, Bloomsbury, and Holborn to the south. Even within the building itself it is possible to notice the quite startling difference between the northern and southern areas. On the southern side of the building, directly on Euston Road, is the main entrance to the building. It has a friendly brick, slightly asymmetrical entrance with gates that are open all day. The southern half of the building is surrounded by a low brick wall topped with circular lanterns and a black painted metal gate that seems to serve more as a design piece than as an actual barrier meant to keep would-be thieves out.
However, the protection for the northern entrance of the building is drastically different. First, there is no entrance on the northern side. The one area that cars are able to enter into (which is not for public access) is a 10ft tall metal gate topped with spikes. The rest of this side of the building is protected with high sloping wire fences topped with three rows of barbed wire.
The other buildings to the north and the south reflect this distinction as well. In the residential area to the north of the Library, the apartments were either fenced in or had bars over them. Many of them were public housing projects. In addition, the small community center had permanent bars over the windows. However, in this northern area the Library was still under construction. Therefore, it is perhaps far too soon to say that the foreboding gloom over the area has to do with anything but the constant construction. Most strangely though, no one has removed a crumbling brick wall that surrounds the area of construction directly to the north of the library. The wall was once beautiful; there were many colors of red brick, pilasters forming a fake â€œarcade,â€? and white icing-like detail. Essentially, it was done in the exact same style as the gothic-style as the hotels above St. Pancras Underground Station. I believe it is probably a remnant of the British Railway station that previously occupied the site.
It would seem as if the British Library is strangely situated. For a building that houses the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Leonardo Da Vinciâ€™s Notebook, and Beatles manuscripts, most would probably expect a slightly nicer location. Perhaps the library would be in a tourist-trap area as opposed to the relatively run-down neighborhood around Kingâ€™s Cross. For many years, â€œgentrificationâ€? seems to have been stunted in this neighborhood by the large number of public housing works. However, with the seeds planted by the library, which only recently opened after twenty-odd years in the making, I think that this area certainly might become a cultural mecca with the Library at its center. It certainly is has easy access from the rest of the country and, really, all of Europe, as it is on the same block as St. Pancras, Kingâ€™s Cross, and the exit from the â€œChunnel.â€? As well, the close proximity of the Gagosian Gallery, University College Hospital, and The Royal Academy of Music seem to promise a flourishing cultural and social area. I would be very curious to see what effect the library has had on the neighborhood in twenty or thirty years.
The building blends right into the area surrounding Kingâ€™s Cross. Looking east, the library has almost the same shade of brick as the Midland Grand Hotel and St. Pancras. Therefore, despite being a much more modern building (as opposed to the gothic-styled hotel), the Library does not seem at all out of place next to it. In fact, looking out east from inside the courtyard of the Library, the Midland Grand Hotel seems to blend right in, almost as if it were a separate part of the building that had been done in a slightly different style. Immediately to the west of the Library is the modern black and white hotel, the Novotel. The Novotel is very geometrical, a boxy building composed of black and white glass in various patterned squares. However, looking west from inside the courtyard, the surrounding buildings once again seem to blend in. The western side of the courtyard is dominated by the black (well, dark steel) statue of Newton resting on a large white base. There is more white trim in the brick wall, and the vertical black squares of the small â€œfenceâ€? within the pillars of the wall mimic the designs of the Novotel building immediately behind it. Once again, the surroundings just outside of the walls manage to blend in, even though the modern red brick building looks drastically different from either of its neighbors.
The British Library was a long time in the making. In the thirty-six years previous to its opening in 1998, two separates sights and three full designs were put forward. Before the British Library acquired its own site, it was part of the British Museum. The Library was housed in the famous dome in the center of the Museum, the Round Reading Room of 1857. When the Trustees first decided to move the library in 1951 because of a lack of adequate housing for the books, they settled on a site in Bloomsbury right at the southern end of the Museum itself. With the plan to build a new Library, all of the shops, residences, and buildings in the area, except for Hawksmoorâ€™s church of St. Georgeâ€™s, would have been demolished. Even with the demolitions, though, there would have been very little room to grow in the Bloomsbury space.
In 1966, a shift in policy occurred that began to make the British Library an institution separate from the British Museum. First, there was a movement to bring the Scientific and Patent collections, which had been housed elsewhere, to be stored in the Library. This was a move that would effectively double the collection. In addition, a decision was made to attempt to preserve more of Bloomsbury Square, and Parliament would not concede to a reduction of the amount of residential area that was supposed to be created upon the extra space provided by the new site of the Library.
Therefore, in 1975 the decision was made to move the Library to St. Pancras. The site that was acquired was much larger than the one in Bloomsbury (nine acres), and had previously been occupied by the British Rail. Actually, the location at St. Pancras made much more sense. First, there was room to expand the library after the initial phases of development. Certainly, there was a factor of convenience as it was so close to the tube and railway stations. In addition, the decision to have the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Terminal (the â€œChunnelâ€?) at St. Pancras has, as Wilson says, â€œtotally transformed accessibility to the Library, both nationally and internationally.â€? (Wilson). Thus, when visitors enter London from the Continent, the first building they see upon arrival is the Library.
The British Library drew heavily on the English Free School of William Morris and John Ruskin (Wilson). This manner of architecture stresses practicality and flexibility so that the building is never at odds with the functions being carried on inside. However, unlike many of the more â€œprogressiveâ€? and modern forms of architecture, the English Free School also embraces British architectural tradition rather than denying it. To be honest, these two concepts seemed to me initially to be rather at odds. Either one rejects preconceived notions to serve a function, or one stressâ€™ a concept of architecture that embraces historical nature. Perhaps this is why Wilson would design a building to specifically reflect its interior, but also give it a tin roof to stress its nature as a â€œprotectiveâ€? building (Rose). Somehow, though, the British Library somehow the Library does manage to incorporate both of these concepts into what I guess would be best described as a post-modernist building.
On one hand, the British Library is certainly modern in the sense that is designed as organically as possible; first and foremost the building caters to the needs of those using it. In addition, the library was built to be adaptable. Wilson wanted the Library to be able to grow, change, and expand, and so built it along the lines of â€œcalculated balance of fixed and flexible characteristics.â€? (Wilson) The Library is organized around a central reading room to give easy access to the book stacks, the various collections and exhibits, and the conference center. Thus, because the building is organized by its contents, it is asymmetrical, though not in a way that appears jarring or displeasing to the eye. The shape of the building and grounds themselves lead a person towards the front entrance, as the v-shape formed by the two wings of the Library lead the eye directly towards the center. As well, the tiles within the walled area of the Library point the eye towards the entrance; diamonds made of white stone on brick are aimed directly at the front door. In addition, the Library was designed so that each smaller â€œphaseâ€? completed would be a workable building because of the nature of their stop-and-go funding process. Shockingly, the â€œLibraryâ€? that was opened in 1998 was actually only the first of Wilsonâ€™s three-phase concept. However, now a new Conservation Centre is currently in the works at the northern side of property.
On the other hand, the building seems to me to be intensely British. It is made of a red, almost Georgian brick, like so many of Britainâ€™s pre-war buildings, and was designed in part to match St. Pancras Chambers. Still, though, brick was a rational choice to use as a building material because it is one of the few whose appearance does not degenerate easily in the London climate and matures better than concrete or stone (footnote The Guardian). As well, the black and red trim and circular details seem to give off a distinctly nautical air.
In fact, the circular detail, which lays in concentric red circles, and then has small bands extending from it, looks like some sort of cross between the steering-wheel of a boat and a porthole. Perhaps it is an allusion to the library as a sort of vessel for British cultureÂ¬ â€“ although I havenâ€™t heard Wilson himself voice this opinion. However, for a country whose history has essentially been defined by its surrounding waters, it seems only right that such a public building would have some sort of reference to the importance of ships and the sea in British history.
While on the south-eastern wing of the building (the Conference Centre) there are horizontal strips of windows, the block portion to the north (looking north from the main entrance) has large walls with tiny, punched out windows that give the air of an industrialized factory. Combined with a clock tower that appears, on itâ€™s top, like a smokestack, one canâ€™t help but feel at least a small reference to the industrial age. In addition, there is the clock tower itself. And, though this may certainly be speculation on my part, this tower ties all of the parts of the building together as a representative of London itself. The Georgian, industrial, and nautical allusions are all brought together by a large clock, much in the manner that all of the different parts of London are drawn upwards and together by their representative timepiece, Big Ben.
One last allusion towards another style in the Library seems to be, strangely enough, a reference to Chinese temples. There is one view from the central courtyard towards the east where the green and red horizontal layers combine with a view of a highly ornamented peak of St. Pancras Chambers to form a frame that seems shockingly similar to a temple.
At first, I wasnâ€™t sure if this was worth mentioning, as Wilson didnâ€™t ever seem to reference this. However, after I read a text that mentioned it, it seemed too present not to say anything about it. I donâ€™t want to delve too intensely into the symbolism of a Chinese temple, but perhaps there is some reference to an overarching spirituality or sacredness that Wilson was reaching for with his architecture(Cherry).
Strangely enough, St. Pancras Chambers was also built in the English Free School, though this building seems to embrace a more â€œtraditionalâ€? sense of British architecture than does the Library. However, one can see the similarities between the two buildings, and perhaps the very tenets upon which they were built (as well as the almost identical color of the brick) is what allows them to blend so easily into one another despite being, in nature, somewhat dissimilar buildings in style and form.
Though the building has received generally exceptional reviews from the public, there have been some criticisms of it, which I think do hit home to a certain extent. Some say that the building seems a little outdated in comparison with other work that opened around the same time (Cherry and Pevsner). Wilsonâ€™s design doesnâ€™t take full advantage of modern materials. However, I also think there is something to be said for Wilsonâ€™s ability to have the space be used efficiently while acknowledging the style of buildings around the Library as well as the â€œBritishâ€? style itself. The Prince of Wales has also been a critic of the building, saying that it looked like a â€œsecret police buildingâ€? (Rose). I was somewhat shocked by this, as I had never gotten any sort of secret police vibes from the building. In fact, I have always found it friendly, warm, and inviting, so the Princeâ€™s review seemed a little odd to me, especially since the generally public seemed to share my view on the whole.
Allinson, Ken. Londonâ€™s Contemporary Architecture. Oxford, UK: Elsevier, 2006.
Cherry, Bridget and Nikolaus Pevsner. London 4 North. London: Penguin Books, 1998.
â€œHistory of The British Library.â€? The British Library Online Website. .
Powell, Kenneth. â€œIntroduction.â€? New Architecture in Britain. London: Merrel Publishers Limited, 2003.
Rose, Steve. â€œBut Does It Work: Colin St. John Wilson, The British Library, London.â€? The Guardian Weekend. July 21, 2007.
Wilson, Colin St. John. Art Spaces: The British Library. London: Scala Publishers, 2007.