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Stirling Prize revisited - is Peckham Library still a winner?

The success of Peckham Library has prompted Southwark to build two more new libraries. But how has the building stood up to 13 years of heavy use? asks Tom Ravenscroft

In 2000, Will Alsop’s Peckham Library became the first, and to date only, library to win British architecture’s highest honour, the Stirling Prize. Widely praised in the architectural press, the judges lauded the scheme as ‘one delight after another’ and called it ‘an extraordinary and innovative design’. As part of the £260 million Peckham Partnership regeneration project, Southwark Council asked Alsop to ‘create a building of architectural merit that would bring prestige to the borough and a welcome psychological boost to the area’. At the time the building was generally perceived to have achieved this. But 13 years after the AJ first visited (AJ 30.03.00), has the building lived up to this high praise, met the day-to-day demands of its visitors and adapted to the changing role of the modern library?

Original criticisms of the building focused on the radical decision to elevate the reading room to the fourth floor, and the fear that the lack of a ground-floor ‘shop window’ would discourage people from visiting. This fear has proved unfounded. In the year ending 31 March 2013, Peckham Library received 457,512 visitors, three-and-a-half times the target of 12,000 visitors a month. Each time I visited over the past two weeks, the library was buzzing with people of all ages. Library membership at Peckham is above the borough average in all age groups, with three times as many 15 to 17-year-olds.

Librarian Eugene Atta explains that the library works because there is ‘so much space and local people value it, [as] they need space to study’. But the popularity of the library has meant the reading room is crowded. AKT II’s Hanif Kara, structural engineer for the original design, notes: ‘My regret is that I wish we could have made it twice as big’. The building is frequently adapted to meet the high demand for tables; for example during busy hours the second floor can be used as overflow study space. 

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A £258,000 refurbishment last summer addressed this demand by adding tables and seating, introducing self-service technology and upgrading IT services. The central pod that stands in the reading room, which failed in its original role as the Afro-Caribbean library as it was not visible to users, has also been awkwardly commandeered as study space.

The distinctiveness of the landmark building has ensured that it has become well known, and if there was any confusion about its function, the word ‘library’ is written in giant letters on top of the building. This device has since been used on several public buildings, repeatedly by Henley Halebrown Rorrison including at the Akerman Health Centre (AJ 07.03.13), and by FAT at the refurbishment of Thornton Heath Library (AJ 16.09.10).

There were sensible justifications for placing the reading room above street level, not least that it freed up the site. However the main advantage of the arrangement, and a major success of the building, are sweeping views across the city that Alsop says ‘allow residents of Peckham to know that they are in London’.

Predicted access problems were also exaggerated. Although there are reports of regular lift breakdowns, Southwark environment and leisure manager Ashoke Chaudhury says that in his two years at Peckham, ‘both lifts have never been out of action at the same time’. And while I was at the library the stairs, with their spectacular views through coloured glazing, were a popular choice. An unintended benefit of the design, the naturally ventilated stair also helps with overheating in summer, when the door from the stair to the main library is propped open to increase air flow into the building. Although the library does receive complaints about heat, Chaudhury is keen to point out that ‘it is not so uncomfortable that people leave’.

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Two other deficiencies mentioned by visitors are the lack of a café and insufficient parking. Although a café would be a welcome asset, the one-stop shop, which was expanded through the addition of a mezzanine level by Alexi Marmot Associates in 2006, draws many locals into the building to access council services; an airport-style queuing system testifies to the high demand - 402 inquiries a day. As for parking, the nearby Pulse leisure centre has disabled bays and in today’s sustainably-minded times, lack of parking provision on this inner-city site seems an intelligent move.

Unfortunately, the success of the building does not extend to the square in which it stands. The library draws many people through it; however they do not linger. The sheltered space created by the library is disappointingly dark, and acts as a thoroughfare rather than a public space. The most obvious sign of the library’s success can be found two miles away, where Southwark built a new library in Canada Water 11 years after Alsop’s opened. Southwark Council continues to commission respected architects to build libraries - earlier this year John McAslan’s £2 million Camberwell Library won planning - and this in an era when most local authorities are closing libraries.

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According to Stephen Rigg, CZWG’s project director for Canada Water Library, which last year overtook Peckham as the borough’s busiest, Peckham Library has ‘raised the bar in terms of both architectural and social ambition for a local library’.

He believes the Southwark library team was motivated by what was achieved at Peckham and ‘obviously wanted to do it again’. At Canada Water, the reading room is again raised above street level, served by two lifts, and a larger budget (£14.1 million compared with £4.5 million) has allowed the borough’s latest library to incorporate a café and a theatre.

The library as an institution is at a crucial juncture, as lack of funding and advances in technology are challenging both buildings’ raisons d’être and their role in the community. Yet new libraries are still being built, and others adapted to meet modern demands - as this issue of the AJ is testament.

The aim of a retrospective reappraisal, or revisit of a building, is to learn from and build on lessons of the past, just as Southwark is learning from the lessons of Peckham.

Other councils might want to follow suit. Perhaps they should consider commissioning Alsop, who, despite his success in Peckham, has never been asked to do another library - surprising, given its Stirling credentials and that it has stood the test of time. According to the council, the library has ‘raised Peckham’s profile’ and ‘assisted the regeneration of Peckham’.

The environmental story

When it was completed in 1999, Peckham Library represented best practice in sustainability. ‘We didn’t need BREEAM or LEED, we just used common sense,’ says Chris McCarthy of Battle McCarthy, which was responsible for the building’s environmental engineering. Common sense informed the massing: the south-facing cantilevered upper floors screen the lower facade from excessive solar gain in summer, and the northern elevation provides good daylight deep into the narrow plan. Double glazing, good levels of insulation and natural ventilation mean that the library uses minimal energy for a building of its volume. Air conditioning was deliberately omitted.

But for McCarthy, the critical sustainability moves were lifting the reading room to create a sanctuary in the sky and forming the space below. ‘Connectivity is sustainability for Peckham. A low-energy shed on the ground wouldn’t have got the same footfall,’ he says.

Asked whether he would engineer the building the same way today, McCarthy responds, ‘Absolutely. Technology has moved on a bit, but you wouldn’t see the differences.’ He is nonchalant about the fact that the main reading room gets so hot in summer that the door is propped open for cross-ventilation. ‘As days get hotter and colder, people will turn up in T-shirts or in coats.’ Operable windows were located at a high level to enhance stack ventilation, but also as a security measure to eliminate the possibility of books being tossed out of windows.

David Jenkin of Alexi Marmot Associates was responsible for the 2006 refurbishment, which added a mezzanine to the one-stop shop. Jenkin observes that the library’s simple plan and elegant structure were relatively easy to adapt, but were not exactly ‘long life, loose fit’ because floor-to-floor heights did not permit horizontal distribution of new services, and there were no spare vertical risers. The introduction of cellular offices with more people and equipment necessitated the introduction of air conditioning, which is housed in a black-glazed cube behind the building.

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‘We had blind trust in Will’s architecture and Will had blind trust in our engineering. He never wanted us to tell him what he already knew,’ says McCarthy. He continues, ‘Will always wanted the latest technology: the best performing glazing and the most efficient lifts. But he also wanted excitement. We could have drawn thousands of sections to show the light levels reflecting off the egg [the central pod], but Will drew the egg and it was the right shape.’

If he was designing Peckham Library today, McCarthy would propose vegetation as part of the engineering solution. He sees this as the way forward for today’s cities, and thinks Peckham Library would be an ideal venue to introduce affordable high-intensity urban farming: shrimp, fish, algae for cosmetics, food processing and fresh vegetables all year round. ‘Because of the fantastic success of the building, the plants would thrive on all that CO2. Plants should cohabit this success, and library users would come away with food and knowledge of urban farming.’

Hattie Hartman

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