Designed to last 400 years: Magdalene’s new library

Broad horizons

Libraries are now much less about places to house books as places for people to work

On Architecture

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Having written in the last issue about new architecture in Oxford, I thought I should follow up with what has been happening in Cambridge to see if there are differences or parallels, not least because I am myself a graduate of the university and it did a great deal to make me dislike modern architecture from the experience of spending my first year as a student in Fello Atkinson’s so-called Cats & Kings development.

It was horrible — anonymous student rooms whose doors had been painted either orange or mud green to cheer the students up and stop them, we were told, from committing suicide. And I spent my first week working in the grand panopticon reading room of Jim Stirling’s History Faculty building which made me much prefer working in Giles Gilbert Scott’s monumental University Library which had a tearoom in the basement for which I am still nostalgic.

The terms of the competition for the new library specified the building should be designed to last 400 years

The building I was most keen to see was the new library at Magdalene College, which I had glimpsed out of the window of the lavatories of the nearby Varsity Hotel. This was commissioned by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, when he was the College’s master, and it is perhaps not entirely accidental that it has an attractively gothic character highly unusual in a contemporary building, with wooden vaulted ceilings and tall brick chimneys which ventilate the building.

The competition to design the new library was held in 2014. It was won by Níall McLaughlin, who made his reputation designing a new chapel for Ripon College Cuddesdon, near Oxford, which is oval in shape and inside opens up to a wonderfully complex and unexpected latticework wooden ceiling, which is again gothic in sympathy if not in its detailing.

He is said to have won the Magdalene competition on the basis of a sketch which demonstrated the relationship between the building he proposed in a corner of the Fellows’ Garden and the existing seventeenth-century Pepys Library, which is itself an unusual hybrid, part gothic in its high flanking gables, part unsophisticated classical in its detailing. It was used to house the library of Samuel Pepys, whose will specified that if a single book was ever lost, the library would be transferred to Trinity College.

The terms of the competition for the new library specified the building should be designed to last 400 years, a good discipline when it comes to choice of materials.

One enters and is immediately faced by a new archive room. To the right is a gallery space, although one slightly wonders how much this can be used because most Oxbridge colleges now restrict public access during term-time and especially when, as in May, exams are pending. To the left is a high, vaulted space with windows in the gables which is very much a feature of the building.

One of the things I liked about this new library is that the ground plan is not immediately obvious. This gives a sense that it is a building to explore and get lost in, which in a library is an attractive characteristic because students probably like to find spaces where they can hide away to work. There is also a social room appropriately named after Rowan Williams.

I can’t help but notice that libraries are now much less about places to house books as places for people to work. The laptop has, to some extent, replaced the physical book as a source of information. But students, particularly after the Covid experience, don’t want to be confined to their rooms all day and so seek semi-social spaces in which to work where reading becomes a collective instead of solitary experience. It’s a lovely building and it made me want to sit down and curl up with a book, looking out at the daffodils in the Fellows’ Garden.

The other building I went to see was the new Walters & Cohen Dorothy Garrod Building at Newnham College. I freely confess to having always loved the original Basil Champneys layout of Newnham, which grew cumulatively round the college gardens with high white rooms which can only be reached along endless corridors.

Walters and Cohen’s Dorothy Garrod Building

Since then, the college has had a good track record in commissioning new buildings, including the Katharine Stephen Rare Books Library, which is an exemplary piece of 1980s design. I would call it postmodern, except that postmodernism is often used pejoratively and this has a quality of elegant restraint entirely appropriate to its use and the character of the college.

I suspect the brief for the Dorothy Garrod Building — perhaps the self-appointed brief — was to open the college up and make it look and feel more available to the outside world. It is more civic than the rest of the college; no bad thing if that’s what the college wanted, but lacking the qualities of privacy, intimacy and intense high-mindedness its other buildings have.

Seeing these new buildings in Cambridge confirmed my view that the old universities, and particularly their colleges, are investing heavily in good new buildings in order to attract students. Once again, it makes me wonder why corporate clients don’t bother to invest in an equivalent level of intelligent quality in London.

The answer, of course, is that they have much shorter time horizons. They don’t see any point in investing in the best quality materials. They are governed by the quick buck. It needs to change.

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