Over 114 years, the London Library had become a labyrinth of conjoined buildings and ill-judged add-ons. Haworth Tompkins Architects has restored its former glories while bringing clarity to the institution, says Crystal Bennes. Photography by Philip Vile
To the lover of books, ideas and words, few pleasures equal those to be found in the London Library. With a collection of more than one million books and documents, it is the largest independent subscription lending library in the world. London’s literati adore it in part because it is a splendid place to work, but also, in contrast to the British Library, it has a very friendly borrowing policy and miles of open stacks (although membership will set you back almost £400 a year).
The other wonderful thing about the London Library is that you can borrow anything in its collection: books that the British Library would only allow in-house supervision of, have been sitting on my desk at home for weeks.
While the library’s relaxed manner takes little getting used to, its buildings are another matter. What first appears to be a straightforward Georgian townhouse set in Mayfair’s St James’ Square opens up to reveal a labyrinth of disparate buildings, acquired by the library over the years as demand for space increased.
The library has occupied its current premises on the north-west corner of the square since 1845, though the building was entirely demolished in 1896 to make way for what was then a radical new steel-frame structure. These Victorian metal frames and grille floors are still present in the book stacks of the original building. This building was extended in the 1920s, the 30s and the 90s, before the Anstruther Wing - a new building fronting Duke Street - was completed in 1995 by Purcell Miller Tritton, providing substantial space for the rare book collection.
Following the acquisition of Duchess House in adjacent Mason’s Yard in 2004 the library commissioned Haworth Tompkins to masterplan the estate, resulting in a four-phase programme. The approach meant more time to raise funds and allowed contractor Mace to keep the library open during construction.
Phase 1, completed in 2007 by Haworth Tompkins, saw the refurbishment of Duchess House as offices for the library staff, giving enough space in the townhouse building for Phase 2 works (AJ Specification 09.07) to commence, and which have recently been completed. Phase 2 included a renovation of all services and stacks, the upgrading of the art reading room, the remodelling of the existing lightwell, improved circulation (including a large lift), and the creation of a single central staircase. The result is that the best of the Victorian spaces have been left alone while the rather poorly judged additions from the past 50 years have been stripped back and cleaned up.
The old main entrance, off the square, was awkward - a two-stage affair where you stood in a tiny tollbooth and flashed your membership card before being allowed access to the main reception. The new decluttered entrance leads to a new, completely open, reception area. The tollbooth is gone and an uninterrupted line of sight now exists from the main entrance through to the book stacks, following the architect’s decision to open up the central lightwell. Previously blocked up, the Victorian lightwell has been remodelled as a new glass-roofed reading room, allowing for a visual link between the library’s buildings as well as natural light into the basement.
The room which most often shows up in the centre’s promotional material is the main reading room on the first floor: plush wing-back reading chairs, elegant wooden writing desks, huge windows and high ceilings, and a mezzanine level of books with winding black iron staircases. Despite the old-boys club grandeur of the reading room, most of the rest of the library is actually quite modern: the vast majority of the bookstacks – at least in the 1930s building - are structural black metal with grille floors. The materials palette of the original spaces is repeated, in subtly modified guises, throughout the renovated areas.
In the lightwell, perforated brass mesh screens line the walls at the basement and ground-floor levels. The screens act as a cover for old construction wounds and disguise services and acoustic insulation, but they also provide a figurative reference, giving a human scale to the four-storey lightwell, creating a room within a room. The lightwell has also been furnished and fitted out with bespoke designs to meet the library’s unique requirements: oak desks, chairs and light fittings have been specified to reference the library’s existing furniture but with a contemporary feel.
The restoration and extension of the 1930s Art Room is particularly welcome. In the 1970s a false mezzanine floor was installed, with a precariously winding iron staircase - never a good combination with heavy art books. These interventions left the space feeling cramped, uncomfortable and, if you were in the room alone, even a little spooky. Now, with the mezzanine removed, the Art Room has been restored to its original double-height proportions.
The architect has updated the Art Room’s old-fashioned, well-worn feel with oak shelving, oak flooring, shot-peened stainless-steel cladding (reiterated in the mezzanine hand rail) and glazed Prismex panel balustrades, edge-lit by LEDs. New shelving was commissioned to withstand a load of up to 100kg per metre and features built-in pull-out shelves for readers to examine books before lugging them back to a desk. A new mezzanine is now set around a central internal courtyard, lined in oak and with a large west-facing window. As a library regular, this is a huge change: whereas before I never would have worked in the Art Room, the new space is a joy to use - beautiful, stimulating, and comfortable, it’s everything one wishes for in a library space.
As a member of nearly two years, I’ve been in the London Library dozens of times but it was only after Graham Haworth pointed it out that I realised not only had the Art Room been redeveloped, but also shifted about five metres to the west. This shift means that access to the Art Room is now available from both the main building, via the new central staircase, as well as from TS Eliot House. The staircase also shares visual links with other redeveloped areas: the deep purple paint from the Art Room is carried through the walls surrounding the staircase, while the perforated brass mesh from the lightwell is repeated here in the balustrade.
Phase 2 works also includes the new, purpose-built Times Room in the basement of TS Eliot House, a new ‘stage door’ entrance in Mason’s Yard, as well as toilets designed by 2001 Turner Prize winner Martin Creed, where the fittings and tiles are subtly different in every cubicle.
The beauty of Haworth Tompkins’ remodelling of the London Library is that it has amplified the building’s inherent charm while improving its circulation and functionality. As I sit writing this, at my now-preferred spot by the window upstairs in the new Art Room, my only wish is that the same level of funding and care could be applied to existing public libraries throughout the country.
London Library, by Haworth Tompkins Architects