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John Rylands Library (AJ Building Study 06.09.07)

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New circulation sucks the life from library
I write as one bereaved. The privilege of pursuing scholarly activities in the John Rylands Library used to be one of the delights of being a citizen of Manchester. Lloyd Evans Pritchard’s refurbishment of the original building has revived the fabric, but the latest ill-advised extension by Austin-Smith:Lord (AJ 06.09.07) sucks the life out of Champneys’ building. New visitors are robbed of the original entry sequence and the full drama of the ascent to the splendid reading room. Champneys’ purpose-designed furniture stands idle, mourners at the new visitor-centre experience to which their home has been reduced.
While many may mistake the building’s Deansgate frontage for a church, they all recognise that it is a building of significance and quality. The new entrance suggests nothing more than yet another banal retail space, perhaps a failing department store. The formica-effect panelling which clads the archive perhaps indicates a kitchen showroom. The ground floor of the library is, indeed, a retail space, with souvenir shop and café, the latter animated by its cheek-by-jowl juxtaposition with the entrance to the new magistrates’ court.
Retreating from the goldfish-bowl exposure of this space, the visitor reaches the atrium for the new vertical circulation, which at least has some generosity about it, although the decision to cover the rear of the original building with a white wall with deep reveals seems a lost opportunity to explore the construction. Now serving as internal windows, no direct sunlight will play across the windows in this surface: blank eyes behind a hollow mask. The dire situation has two consolations. The first is that the construction of a neighbouring commercial development (offcuts from Libeskind’s aborted ‘Spiral’ extension at the V&A?) will do much to obscure the extension, although, rather perversely, it will perhaps also make the new entrance to the library even harder to identify. Secondly, as is evidenced by the impending demise of Stephenson Bell’s Quay Bar (AJ 06.09.07), one can be fairly confident that, given the short lifespan of the previous addition, the new extension to the library will soon meet the same fate. Manchester’s genius loci can be alarmingly unsentimental!
Eamonn Canniffe, Manchester School of Architecture
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