Bookish charm

Many are unaware of its existence, and those who make use of it cherish its eccentricities, so will the expansion of the London Library spoil the rich character of this venerable institution? Trish Lorenz gains a sneak preview of the redevelopment’s first

Beloved of writers and readers, and home to more than a million books, the London Library is the world’s largest independent lending library. Its home in London’s St James’s Square is an architectural mishmash, creaking under the pressure of use, so next month the library is about to open phase one of a redevelopment project.

The current space is eccentric and architecturally interesting, with three storeys of vertigo-inducing Victorian book racks, an impressive 1930s-style entrance lobby, a reading room and a warren of corridors filled with the scent of books. Behind this original library sits Duchess House, a bland modern office block, which has recently been acquired to expand the library’s premises. The challenge of translating the library’s unconventional interiors to a characterless 1990s office building with low ceilings and bland spaces fell to architect Haworth Tompkins to complete.

‘The new building lends itself to being a library – it’s not listed, so we had freedom to do things and it has the right loading to carry the weight of the books,’ says Haworth Tompkins director Graham Haworth. ‘But, it had no character and we needed to give it the feeling that it was part of the culture of the library.’

His practice took the ‘textures and materials’ of the original library as inspirations for the design of the new space. ‘The open-backed mesh of the book stacks, the utilitarian materials, the Victorian cast-iron stairs and the 1950s Reynolds Stone identity all played their part,’ adds Haworth.

Walk from the existing, cramped space to the empty modern building and you’d expect the contrast to be jolting, but that’s not the case. The consultancy has used simple motifs to convey character. New book stacks made from laser-cut steel have a similarity to the old versions, while the staircase, with its hot-rolled steel ‘carpet’ has echoes of the Victorian cast-iron stairs next door.

Doors to offices and rooms that require privacy are glazed but feature a paper interlay – a perfect touch within a library space, and there is something almost Japanese about their elegance. Dull UPVC windows have been given interest through the addition of flush, powder-coated steel frames. On the exterior, this gives the building a much-needed architectural air; inside, their gold-painted sills ‘reflect the gold spines of the books’, suggests Haworth. Signage, by Nate Campbell, adds a touch of eccentricity through the use of 1930s-style manicules.

Haworth Tompkins also collaborated with Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed on the project; the outcome is two distinctive toilet blocks. Their floors are made of hundreds of individual tiles and each sink, tap, toilet and toilet-roll holder is different. Haworth says the idea came when Creed noticed that three adjacent doors in one corner of the old building were each painted a different shade of green, and that carpet, vinyl, wood and metal often sat side by side on the floors. ‘[Creed] wanted to do something that was part of the building rather than a standalone piece, and the random tiles on the floor connect thematically back to the old building, and also reflect the diversity of the books stored here,’ says Haworth.

‘When we initially involved [Creed], we weren’t sure exactly what would come out of it, but working with artists is always interesting as they tend to have inquiring and observational minds,’ he adds. ‘[Creed] helped us to understand the culture and idiosyncrasies of the space and influenced our thinking on colour, texture and materials.’

The team is now preparing for phase two of the redevelopment, which – dependent on funding – will involve ‘a revival of the existing historic spaces’, including the creation of a new three-storey book stack, an atrium, a contemporary reading room and, on the roof, a walled courtyard garden. Members are fond of their building; it will be interesting to see what they make of this 21st century reinterpretation of its literary eccentricities.

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