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Library, University of Aberdeen, by Schmidt Hammer Lassen

Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s zebra-skinned library brings the University of Aberdeen into its sixth century with a flourish, writes Alan Dunlop. Photography by Adam Mork

Aberdeen is a city apart from the rest of Scotland. When people call it the Granite City, they mean it – the local stone of which it is built is unrelenting. Aberdonians say that the granite sparkles in the sunshine, but in winter it presents a hard, uncompromising face to the visitor.

The quality of natural light in Scotland’s east coast is often stunning, clearer and more intense than in any other part of the country. The countryside is flat, and there is an endless horizon that stretches out to the North Sea. Artists love it. Aberdeenshire has more dry and sunny days than any other place in Scotland, but even on a cold, wet November afternoon the University of Aberdeen’s new library, designed by Danish practice Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, has a striking impact on the surrounding townscape. In a city not known for the quality of its modern architecture it is a bold building; a translucent, zebra-skinned cube hovering over all the Caithness stone.

Aberdeen has escaped the economic ills that have affected other cities. Oil money has insulated the local economy to a large extent, yet this protection has also made Aberdeen, and its architecture, insular; most architects in the city do not engage with the rest of the country – they don’t need to.

The University of Aberdeen is the third oldest in Scotland and one of the oldest in Britain. Founded in 1495, its traditions and reputation are strong, and the university counts five Nobel laureates among its past professors. At the southern edge of the campus in Old Aberdeen sit its most important buildings; King’s College and King’s College Chapel. The chapel’s Crown Tower was, until the creation of the new library, the university’s marker on the city skyline, and its most important structure.

The commission for the new £57 million library was won by Schmidt Hammer Lassen in competition in June 2006, which beat off bids from Page\Park Architects, MJP Architects, Moshe Safdie with Allan Murray Architects, O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects and Bennetts Associates. The Danes, architects of the Royal National Library in Copenhagen, were the last to present and produced a stunning, demountable scale model of a gossamer-skinned building, which would become the centrepiece of the new campus.

Aberdeen

The practice partners were not intimidated by the university’s 500-year history, and knew little of the conservation issues which may have influenced some of the other well-conceived but slightly less ambitious competition entries. Their idea was to establish a discernable western edge to the campus, with a new approach to the library and a public space in front. It was a legible and ordered proposal which was clearly understood and accepted by the university jurors. It promised to take the ancient university into its sixth century with a flourish.

The new library is accessed by a pedestrianised ramped thoroughfare, which continues to the ground floor and ends as a plinth to the west face of the building. The entrance is at eye level and, as you approach from the east, frameless glazing edges the entrance level, which creates the impression that the library cube floats above the ramp and plinth.

Below the new thoroughfare is a two-storey archive, conservation and storage space which houses the library’s most precious books. The university has a catalogue of 200,000 rare books and over 4,000 important archival collections. It has more than 30 15th-century manuscripts and a 6,000-volume collection of the works of Sir Walter Scott. The plinth wraps a protective and secure arm around these treasures.

The university describes its new library as a ‘21st-century space for learning and research, open to the wider public, as well as students and staff’. On the ground floor there is a café, and an exhibition and conference space. On entering the double-height ground floor, your eyes are swept up through seven floors and past a sequence of free-form floor openings which narrow towards the roof. The curved, twisting openings are a surprise, contradicting the regular and hard-edged external geometry of the main building.

The ground floor is open to visitors and is vibrant, but the main library is accessed through a security threshold and reached by way of four glass lifts, which connect all floors. But the lifts are slow, causing bottlenecks, and I found it disappointing to move from such a grand ground floor space to the upper floors. All the students are at work on their laptops, with rows and rows of books forming a backdrop. It is clear that the building is more of a workspace with a book storage facility than a conventional library, books no longer playing a significant part in study and learning.

From the seventh floor, looking down through the sequence of void spaces, the building is impressive, and you can see why students would want to congregate there and study. Ambient light fills the internal spaces and the atmosphere is calm and quiet, considering it is completely open to all floors. However, the internal spaces lack warmth, and much of the Aberdeen colour palette has been taken into the building through miles of grey carpet and exposed concrete, sometimes broken by featureless white walls. The balustrades are made from planar glass panels with wooden handrails, but the finishes throughout are hard and impersonal. There is an absence of colour and the rows of books, which were intended to provide vibrancy, are lost within the monochrome interior finishes.

The external envelope is disappointing, but only because it promised so much. The gossamer-like veil evident in the competition-winning proposal and expressed by the original model has been compromised by a combination of BREEAM insulation requirements and cost control. The curtain walling is a poor alternative. The external fenestration is, however, cleverly composed in a sequence of 18 units to form a continuous pattern, and manages to retain a translucency which is particularly striking at night. Internally the panels are solid and uncompromising, and spoil the potentially uninterrupted view of coastline from the top floors.

Aberdeen is the focus of much current architectural debate, with the Union Terrace Gardens competition now reduced to a face-off between Diller Scofidio and Renfro and Foster + Partners, and the drama that is the Donald Trump residential and leisure development at nearby Menie. The standard of architecture contained within the Trump proposals is clichéd and woefully disappointing given that a site of special scientific interest has been sacrificed for it. Equally, it is too early to tell what the Union Terrace Gardens will bring. In the meantime, Schmidt Hammer Lassen has succeeded in giving a 500-year-old institution a new outlook, and has added an impressive high-rise addition to the townscape. The Danish practice has created a special piece of contemporary architecture in a city that badly needs it.

Alan Dunlop is director of Alan Dunlop Architects and visiting professor at Robert Gordon University, Scott Sutherland School of Architecture, Aberdeen

Credits

Start on site September 2009
Completion First phase September 2011, second phase August 2012
Net internal floor area 13,700m2
Form of contract JCT standard form of contract (Scotland) with quantities (Traditional)
Total cost £57 million
Cost per square metre ex. vat £2,225
Architect Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects
Client Court of the University of Aberdeen
Structural engineer Arup
M&E consultant Arup
Quantity surveyor / cost consultant Davis Langdon
Project manager Arup Project and Programme Management
CDM coordinator Arup Project and Programme Management
Main contractor PIHL UK
Approved building inspector Not applicable (traditional process with Aberdeen City Council building control)
Annual CO2 emissions 30kg/m2This is energy/emissions from heating, ventilation and lighting, and does not include the electricity used within the building in PCs and other library FFE equipment
CAD software used AutoCAD
Ground works and piling Stent
In situ concrete Carey Group
Precast concrete Border Concrete
Steel frame RIM
Mechanical services Sparks

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