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Beacon of enlightenment: The Lexicon by Carr Cotter Naessens

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In a time of shrinking public realm, Carr Cotter Naessens’ new library at Dún Laoghaire is a generous, well-worked example of what civic architecture can be, writes Gary Boyd. Photography by Dennis Gilbert

The town of Dún Laoghaire is one of a series of still-identifiable settlements strung along the coastal reaches to the south of Dublin, fronting a hinterland of sprawling suburbs defined by arterial routes. The oldest of these was a railway - Ireland’s first - which in 1834 linked the capital to the harbour at Kingstown (as Dún Laoghaire was then known) and the steam packet to Liverpool. From its beginning, Dún Laoghaire was defined by a coastal infrastructure which in turn facilitated a shift to a seaside resort and an associated amalgam of big, robust elements: quay walls and piers, neo-Georgian terraces, grandiose hotels, pleasure gardens, the linear and deep cuttings of the railway line separating the town from the sea, and the ferries. In the late 20th century, this landscape was added to by apartment blocks, commercial buildings, civic offices and the ground-scraping Pavilion complex. The town is beset with architectural erratics, each of which tends to operate under its own internal logic, discretely aloof from, yet inalienably embedded within the rest of the town’s fabric. Most strain to take some advantage of what littoral position they have on the sloping ground between Dún Laoghaire’s main street and Dublin bay, to which the town itself forms an urban, if not topological, termination.

This is one of the contexts of the town’s new library, the Lexicon, designed by the Cork architectural practice Carr Cotter Naessens. The other is that of the library itself, a typology so old that Nikolaus Pevsner found its origins obscure; so old and pervasive as to be apparently universal. Yet the form of the library has traditionally been determined by the technologies associated with its contents and how these could be stored and accessed. Centuries of innovation in efficiency led finally to the separation of reading material from reading room. But it was the book that historically built the library, a position challenged utterly by the arrival of the computer, digitisation and the miniaturisation and ephemeralisation of knowledge.

The Lexicon, however, is big. From the north it can be picked out on Dún Laoghaire’s skyline from Dublin’s South Wall about 10 miles away. More immediately, it becomes a central marker in its home town, a termination within a termination, ending the view from Scotsman’s Bay to the south, and dominating those from the tendril harbour walls where much of the population takes evening strolls.

The building replaces the Carnegie Library built in 1812 by Lucius O’Callaghan and James Henry Webb. Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy most significantly took the form of financial bestowments to towns wishing to build public libraries; the earliest of these often featured a lamp outside to denote enlightenment. The word ‘public’ is important. They were freely accessible to all, the first libraries with public access to shelves - an invitation to stay and browse - and the first to provide spaces specifically for children.

In an era of shrinking public realm and concomitant cuts, the generosity of the spaces offered unconditionally by the Lexicon is remarkable, and provides an appropriate continuation of Carnegie’s activities. This is not to say that the building should be defined through its programmatic largesse alone. Its interior spaces define a sequential architectural promenade that is both well articulated and ultimately dramatic; a journey that resolves in the curving ridges of the sculpted concrete rooflights visible from the reading areas. The latter, on the northern side of the building have something of the scale and quality of Hans Scharoun at the Staatsbibliothek or the Philharmonie in Berlin - cranking, non-orthogonal plates that provoke their enclosing walls to open up views of Dún Laoghaire in the foreground, or further afield to Dublin bay and its other terminus in the hill of Howth. The floor plates end in an enormous vertical window overlooking the harbour and providing, perhaps for those approaching by ferry or strolling on the pier, an echo of Carnegie’s lantern of enlightenment.

In plan, the building is split in two by a series of piers containing services, including extracts which emerge on the inclined roof as a series of stepping cowls. The public spaces on the other side of these piers are more orthogonal and sober. One book-lined room has no views at all except of the sky, with clerestory lighting providing the means for more focused study. The division in the plan is echoed in the outside of the building. Brick is used to the south in an elevation that approximates the scale and pattern of the adjacent neo-Georgian terraces. In contrast, the other, more public, side presents a series of angular, planar geometries wrought in creamy stone panels. These also wrap the garden and the entrance to the car park. Neither of the two principal elevations seeks to reveal the complexity and sophistication of the interior.

The Lexicon is not about the book nor the computer. These are media that, like the ships that dock in the nearby harbour, shift shape and form over time. Instead, while accommodating both, the building is about a more enduring public civility conferred in the successful reconciliation of its two contexts: the town and the library. This is expressed across all its scales, from its treatment of and connection to landscape and townscape, through the calm gravitas of its interiors and their organisation, to the warmth and commodity of its furniture, almost all of which - significantly - has been designed by the architect. It is in many respects, therefore, an anachronistic building. An extremely well‑worked and considered architectural Gesamtkunstwerk - erected in a period of specialisation, austerity, and economic optimisation - it evokes, in almost all of its spaces, an unquantifiable faith in architecture. For Dún Laoghaire and its indefinable hinterlands, it provides not only a library but a beacon for what public architecture can and should be.

Gary Boyd is reader in architecture at Queen’s University Belfast

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