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Stirling Prize revisited: Alsop looks back at Peckham Library

Tom Ravenscroft talks to Will Alsop about his Stirling Prize winning Peckham Library

As part of the AJ’s revisit to Peckham Library, Will Alsop gives his views on the building he designed 14 year’s ago.

How successful is Peckham Library?
The library gave Peckham an address. It forms an anchor to Peckham Rye, and  far more people know Peckham exists. There are a lot of interesting things happening there now, and certainly the library contributed to Peckham becoming an interesting place.

When we started they didn’t call it a library. They called it Peckham Mediatheque. I said, ‘That’s a word no one understands and you are only using it to sound modern’. We aimed the building to be somewhere between a library and a community space.

When we won, I didn’t know what we were going to do. All my best buildings have been like that. We spent a lot of time with locals and users to find out.

If you were to do the project now, what would you do differently?
I wish that we had created a small café on the roof or somewhere inside the building. It’s sad that there is nowhere to get a coffee or tea, as this goes with the act of looking and learning. The budget didn’t allow for a small theatre, which I thought was quite important.

The choice of standard library shelving was purely budgetary. I’d rather have had timber shelves.

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How do you answer criticisms of placing the library on the fourth floor?
What interested me was that on Peckham High Street, where the old library – a brightly painted Nissen hut – was, there was a row of shops on their last legs. If you had a clear view through the site, it would help those shops and perhaps encourage people to walk across in front of the building. Therefore I didn’t want the building to fill the site.

People can also stand underneath the building while they are waiting for their bus. The space can be programmed for events where rain doesn’t really matter that much. Finally, a library is a cerebral zone where people can get lost in books. It should be a place where you are slightly apart from the world.

If you build a semi-decent building, it will not attract vandalism

What I didn’t know at the time, and it is a major thing, is that when you get to the fourth floor you can see St Paul’s and all of central London. For regeneration this is very important. People in Peckham could see that they were a part of inner London. It was something I learned from, and now find myself thinking about sightlines quite a lot.

The drop-in centre on the ground floor was another pull space, because we found that people would prefer to go to the library if they have a problem rather than the town hall, which is quite an imposing building.

Was vandalism a consideration in the design?
There was a lot of discussion about the glass coming down to the ground, but I have been vindicated if we have only lost three sheets in 12 years. If you build a semi-decent building, it will not attract that much vandalism. Badly built buildings that are cynical and horrible attract vandalism, normally commercial buildings.

Was the mesh designed to reduce vandalism?
I thought it would lighten the building. I saw it as a handkerchief that had been blown into an inverted L-shape. Of course I justified it by saying it would stop the clear glass getting smashed by vandals and they agreed. But no one ever asked, ‘What about the other side?’

Do you think the square works?
The idea was that there should be a market under the arch. They also built a funny little art spot [Peckham Space] very cheaply. If I was in charge of Southwark, I’d be saying to the people who run Frank’s Café [open during the summer on top of Peckham’s multistory car park], ‘I’ll give you the space, if you programme it’. It would be good.

How will the development of the site behind the library impact the building?
They did have a competition for the site, which I entered, for housing, a cinema and a comedy club. It amused me as we did quite a detailed design, and the planners were concerned that it may not be a good neighbour for the library.

They need to do the timber yard and the site next door so that the area becomes the northern destination in Peckham. I see it as unfinished work, really, which given the recession I can understand, but now it would be worth doing.

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