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Peckham rise: Peckham Library by Alsop & Störmer

[Orginally published AJ 30.03.2000] In Peckham Library Alsop & Störmer has created a local landmark which is designed to appeal to local residents and their children. By Jeremy Melvin. Photographs by James Morris

One of the problems with buildings, says Will Alsop’s old mentor Cedric Price, is that you have to walk around them. Even before you’ve had a chance to look at them, to appreciate the delights they offer or to inspect their proportional systems and axial relations, they have incurred so much irritation. Alsop relates this while talking about the Peckham Library’s unusual composition – a bookend, as it were, with one end resting on the ground and the other balanced on a set of extraordinarily slender and surprisingly angled columns some 12m up.

The deep overhang gives a large covered area which relates to the collection of public features at the foot of Peckham Rye, the Troughton MacAslan Arch, Southwark Council’s own architects’ Pulse (a health and fitness centre) and now the library. But Alsop stresses the way it feeds a network of routes into the Peckham hinterland. No one has to walk around his building – its parti makes its footprint remarkably small – but they can walk to it, congregate around it and choose whether or not to enter it.

This is a public building with a difference. Most institutions demand entrance, either through an intimidating portico or by a kind of 60s stealthy do-gooding where you’re already on the ramp to the library foyer or public art observation platform before you realise that it doesn’t lead to the pub after all. In either case the act of and invitation to enter depends on the manipulation of a code, either visual or physical.

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Alsop plays with other sorts of codes. In part they are latent within the possibilities of the locality – whether the physical links that beg to be made, or the patterns of use – and in part in the building’s purpose. In a sense this is going back to the naive roots of architecture, a mythical period when social structures were so clear that nothing could be built which was not immediately comprehensible. Following this line, style is the social contract which allows all sorts of short cuts to generate common understanding when life becomes a little more complicated, bringing order, objectivity and the possibility for repetition across the panoply of individual circumstances.

Alsop is not so naive as to attempt to revive this mythical, pre-stylistic Eden. His substitute ingredient for ‘style’ is a cocktail of social realism and intuition. He explains that he has learned about being a community architect from his experience in Holland, ‘indulging in design workshops goes beyond what you know in architecture,’ he confesses, and ‘there was an element of this in Peckham’. These sessions resemble negotiations where ‘compromise is a signifier of agreement’. The project has a set of roots in community wishes.

Another grows from Alsop’s own predilections, and in working through the interaction between them, the design achieves a measure of objectification. Alsop enjoys this approach for various reasons. It allows him to call himself a community architect which might shock in some quarters, and it means, he doesn’t have to ‘indulge in the language lots of architects use’ to display their credentials to each other. His, he would hope, are self-evident. And it makes a robust platform for his claim that ‘the best value for money is to do it as you want. That gives something back through genuine joy and delight’.

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If locality and purpose are the raw material for architecture, Peckham Library’s raw material is Peckham and libraries. If the interaction between them leads to a transformation of each, this statement ceases to be tautological. The transformation of Peckham has already begun, with Southwark’s legendary director of regeneration, Fred Manson, taking the initiative to regenerate the town centre with help from the Single Regeneration Budget. The Arch and the Pulse are the first fruits with the library following on. All are built on former dock land, with the canal filled in to make a path up to Burgess Park. The arch terminates Peckham Rye, which, as Alsop points out, ‘works quite well as a high street’. Yet it still lacks the glamour of the borough’s northern edge around Bankside.

The library adds a modest transformation of its own. Visible from a distance at night through its coloured illumination, or during the day because of its eye-catching patinated copper cladding, it is an obvious local landmark. At ground level its arcade suggests a cross axis to the Arch, leading in front of the library between the Pulse and Peckham Hill Street, making a circular hub for a network of pedestrian routes which would otherwise remain implicit. Here the transformation is literal and physical. Entering it is deliberately dislocating: apart from incorporating a borough information centre, its foyer is small and leads directly to a lift which rises through the office zone to the reading room at the top. Its size alone is unexpected, and its shape seems to change: you enter a long thin building and emerge into a space which is nearly square. Despite its relatively simple, cuboid volume, it unveils itself through movement.

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At the southern edge, the wall and roof pull away to make a strip rooflight, while the artfully placed windows make frames to observe the sky. To the north the view stretches towards Bankside and the City, giving a sense of Peckham’s place within London, albeit through coloured glass. Treating each view according to a different generic way of looking might accept further analysis, but it is also an illustration of the Alsopian strategy of bringing intuitive and communal perceptions into contact with each other.

Overhead, at mezzanine level in the reading room, are three blob-like forms which rest on tripods. The central one is open to the volume (above it is the low speed extract fan which helps to ventilate the space) and houses the library’s world-class Afro-Caribbean literature collection. The other two are sealed, one providing a children’s space and the other a meeting room. As unobtrusive interventions within the reading room they are much more appropriate architectural metaphors for their functional purposes within society than conventional library design generally manages. In their creation the engagement with Peckham starts to become social as well as formal. The building is an active part of the community.

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The strategy at Peckham of elevating the reading room 12m in the air is more than a way of avoiding a pedestrian barrier. It is also a way of placing functions in the most logical location, vis a vis the ground and the sky. Reading benefits from natural light; rooflights are much more efficient ways of using it than windows, and a single storey building in a city is pointless. Other functions demand to be on the ground, while more can be most effective underground. And, as Alsop himself has demonstrated in his other recently completed, significant project in London at North Greenwich station, subterranean buildings can be just as noble as those above ground. These two projects both refuse to fetishise the ground plane – wherever it happens to be after generations of urban development.

Working in the reading room will allow people to contemplate the racing clouds and dramatic skies of a south London sunset – made all the more glorious through the haze of gaseous emissions. The library is a place cognate to both Peckham, and the sky: dwelling, as it were, not entirely within the slime of the earth nor within the celestial firmament, but somewhere in between. Alsop, however, is too irreverent for the pseudo-discourse to have the last word. For above this purgatorial plane projects a giant red tongue, the sunshade over the Afro-Caribbean collection.

The imposition of the floating forms reminds us that this is not a library for reading seventeenth-century divines or eighteenth-century French philosophers, but for the literary heritage of the local population and their children. It is an appropriate symbol for the new century: the century which will be as Blairite in the same way as the twentieth never emerged from the shadow of Lord Rosebery, the first lcc leader who condemned London as a place of eternal damnation. Alsop, perhaps more than other more obvious contenders, shows us a way out.

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