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The Library at Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

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AHMM has created a library and cultural centre designed to adapt to Brent Council’s rapidly changing civic environment, says Tim Abrahams

BRIEF • ARCHITECT’S VIEW • CLIENT’S VIEW • ENGINEER’S VIEW • ENVIRONMENTAL DATA • PROJECT DATA • SPECIFICATION • PLANS • DETAIL 

The debate over library closures in the London Borough of Brent cuts across every single fault-line in the debate about culture and society in Britain. Alan Bennett referred to the most obvious of them when he appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight in 2011 and suggested that ‘the privatisation of libraries has been on the Conservative agenda for 15 years’. When Labour-led Brent council chose to close six of its 12 libraries in April of that year, the move was met with rapidly organised public opposition. However, it wasn’t as simple as a straight debate around the state funding of public utilities. The new library – sorry, cultural centre – at Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) reveals unexpected aspects of this, which deserve exploring. 

In the aftermath of the decision to close the six libraries, the council rarely sought to justify the closures on the grounds that cuts had been forced on it by central government. Instead councillors insisted that they had chosen to divert money into improving the rest of its library stock and a general overhaul of its estate. Campaign groups were created to resist the closure, funded in part by Bennett, of course, but also by the likes of The Pet Shop Boys. The campaigners took the council to the High Court to try to stop the process, but unsuccessfully. After the court ruling, the then leader of Brent Council, Ann John, said: ‘This shouldn’t be about how many buildings you have. This should be about the services you are providing.’

The Willesden Green cultural centre currently provides an astonishing wealth of cultural amenity: library, gallery, museum, archive, performance space. So it is worth pointing out that both sides in the debate believed that libraries were at the heart of communities. They just disagreed about what the scale of ‘community’ was. Interestingly, the disagreement rarely went into the definition of what libraries did. Bennett’s own criticism of the move was based as much around access to computers as to books. 

The significance for the borough’s rich architectural heritage has been complex. The council sold the old Town Hall, a terrific piece of early civic Modernism in brick by Clifford Strange, to a French private school and consolidated its services in the massive Civic Centre in Wembley, a rather stupendous design by Hopkins in his older, orthogonal High-Tech style, rather than the touchy-feely glulam work he has occasionally turned his hand to recently. Meanwhile, a further part of the consolidation led to the demolition of the previous Willesden Green Library, an awkward, two-building structure built in the 1980s appended to a late-Victorian library completed in 1894. The new structure, again attached to the original, was funded by profit from the sale of houses built on the former car park. 

AHMM’s library is set back from the road behind the oddball Arts and Crafts structure. It is, on first appearance, modest without being dull. There is a genuinely engaging and playful relationship between the white ceramic-faced brick and the coloured brick arranged in English bond, which breaks down a potentially imposing volume, sitting opposite semi-detached housing on the two side-streets. The facades of buildings in the new era of cultural and civic infrastructure are key, given the uniform construction techniques. This one has the perfect balance between playfulness and sobriety. The white brick also addresses the render on the old library perfectly. 

AHMM’s long-time collaborator, artist Morag Myerscough, has produced some of her best work here: both the lighting installation and a mural in a central foyer between old and new elements. Placing the café in one of the arms that stretches away from the high street, rather than in the old library, which stands on the apex of the site on the high street is a bold move. AHMM has stripped it of its interiors and, empty for much of the time, it creates a rather eerie memorial to the highly heterogeneous, bespoke nature of 19th century libraries. 

It stands in stark contrast to the cultural centre. AHMM’s response is a perfect example of that practice’s pragmatism. Built under a Design and Build contract for Galliford Try – the same contractor AHMM worked with on Westminster Academy – it is an act of constituting as much useful, adaptable space from the plot as possible. Arranged on three floors on three sides around a triangular atrium, the building provides office space on the top floor, then museum, archives and reading rooms on the second and open library space, together with a café and gallery on the ground. Although exposed in-situ reinforced concrete is the predominant material for the circulation, the panelling in the atrium and library is painted white. The books and the people provide the colour. 

AHMM’s Paul Monaghan found that working with Galliford Try again allowed them to keep detailing costs to a minimum, as they replicated certain features from Westminster Academy, including a handrail, of which Monaghan is clearly proud. The practice has created a space that is ‘like the Westminster Academy in look and feel’. And indeed it is: at Westminster Academy glazed classrooms were stacked around a central atrium. It is a school unafraid to provide the kind of space its pupils might expect to enjoy in the corporate world. This has evolved into a library that operates within a rapidly changing civic environment, where it may be called on to provide other functions soon.

The neutrality and openness of the space is only partly due to this need to be flexible. Brent – typifying a wider trend it must be said, does not wish libraries simply to be libraries. And yet bringing together functions around a library is not new. Bennett wrote the following about the Amery Public Library in Leeds, where he studied as a child and which was built within the same structure as the police station: ‘The library closed at nine and, coming down in the lift (bevelled mirrors, mahogany paneling, little bench) the attendant … would stop and draw the gates at the floor below and in would get a covey of policemen.’ Today the civic function of that library is combined with that familiar public-facing administrative hub known as the ‘one stop shop’. In our contemporary era we are attempting to combine functions by providing anonymous space, rather than specifying functions. 

But if you want to look for a positive image of London as a multicultural space, you could do much worse than visit Willesden Green library on a midweek afternoon. It is largely full, but not ridiculously so. A school trip piles into the the museum space, which features a really good little history of Brent; a young man ploughs through a stack of Hindi newspapers, pausing to take calls on his phone, two women talk quietly while their children rifle through picture books; an old man eats his sandwiches and reads through some leaflets. Staff are present but there are few of them. This generic space is very easy for staff to monitor compared with the council’s older libraries, which featured quaint, old-fashioned things like rooms. 

However, this successful, albeit generic space, staffed by council employees paid for by the public through their taxes or rates, is just one alternative for Brent’s inhabitants. The divestment of the six libraries has helped the citizens of Brent understand the nature of the arrangement on which they were built. Cricklewood and Kensal Rise libraries were built largely by money donated by Andrew Carnegie, but the land upon which they stand was given to the council under the Literary and Scientific Institutions Act in 1854. Although we forever filter it through the eyes of the post-war settlement, our civic infrastructure was in fact dependent on massive, co-ordinated acts of private philanthropy, enshrined by legal devices. 

In an important detail which should remind us that the state and the public are not synonymous, with their closure the libraries returned to their original owner, All Souls College in Oxford. Flummoxed by suddenly becoming the custodian of a much-loved community asset in north London and under extreme pressure from local campaigners, the new owners sold the library on to a developer with the stipulation that Friends of Kensal Rise Library be granted a rent-free space for a community library on the ground floor of the building. The new library, staffed by volunteers, is scheduled to open this summer. Most of the former libraries live on in a volunteer-run state. 

It will be fascinating to compare the two spaces when it opens. The cultural centre provides neutral, warm space in which to gather, use the internet and even read. One can’t help but feel a vital component of the public is absent, namely its active and dynamic part, such as one might find in the association of organisations that have been created to protect the closed libraries. Also one can’t help but feel that the specific enclosed forms of the old libraries are an enabler of that culture. The biggest irony is not that those who despise the rhetoric over the Big Society are being compelled into enacting it. It is this: if indeed something like the Big Society is being formed, it is being done so out of huge antipathy not just to the Conservatives but to all parties of governance.  

Ground floor plan

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

First floor plan

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Second floor plan

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Third floor plan

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Facade section and elevation 

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Detail

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

As a key element of the design, the brickwork detailing of the polychromatic patterned panels was carefully considered. The panels use a contemporary, playful interpretation of the traditional English bond found in the Old Library and nearby Victorian architecture. A range of pattern variations were tested at 1:1 with different colour palettes drawn from buildings within the surrounding conservation area. The final brick selection and pattern, with a horizontal emphasis, deliberately establishes a relationship with opposing building on Brondesbury Park Road as well as the Old Library itself. A dark-grey mortar was chosen to emphasise the articulation of the brickwork and mitigate the appearance of weathering over time.

Bricks are hand-set, supported on continuous perimeter shelf-angles at each floor level and tied back to a steel framing system. The steel frame system also allowed an additional layer of mineral wool insulation to line the internal face of the facade build-up, increasing the overall thermal resistance of the facade.

Between the brickwork the size of glazing module increases from top to bottom to provide optimum daylight levels and aspect for a variety of spaces behind. A key ambition for the project was to provide a highly energy-efficient building using natural ventilation as a primary source of cooling. This is achieved with operable vents in the facade. Rooflights draw air into the building and out through the central atrium space using both assisted and passive airflows.

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Source: Tim Soar

Brief

The London Borough of Brent’s vision was to create a new library at the heart of the community. Serving as a civic landmark along the Willesden Green High Road, the new library occupies a triangular site at the intersection with Brondesbury Park in the Willesden Green Conservation Area. The scheme retains and returns to public use the original Willesden Central Library (built in 1894) at the northern apex of the site.

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Source: Tim Soar

Architect’s view

Our approach to the scheme was to reinstate the historic form of the original 1894 library that consisted of two street-facing wings parallel to the main frontages and placing the entrance to the building at the apex of the site. In addition to repairing the relationship between the building and the street, this strategy allowed us to return to use the remaining fragment of the old library, creating a generous double-height public room.

It was imperative to create a strong presence for the building appropriate to its civic character and historic role as local landmark. In developing the distinctive polychromatic brickwork facade treatment, we looked to respond to the predominant materials of the local context and conservation area. The three-storey east and west elevations are expressed as horizontal bands of white glazed brick with varying proportions of glazing at each floor responding directly to changes in use within the building. The solid elements between the glazing are highly patterned in a traditional English bond palette sampled from Victorian buildings along the High Road as well as the retained old library.

Internally the two accommodation wings are largely open, allowing for large, open-plan spaces and greater flexibility in the arrangement of floor plans, both current and future. Alongside traditional library spaces the scheme accommodates a café, training spaces, a gallery, exhibition and function rooms, Brent Museum and Archives, as well as council offices. At the centre of the new building is a dramatic atrium, visually connecting all of the internal uses and delivering natural daylight and ventilation into the plan. The exterior and interior feature artwork developed by Studio Myerscough in collaboration with the poet Lemn Sissay, as well as local residents and schoolchildren.

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Source: Tim Soar

Client’s view

By redeveloping the Library at Willesden Green an opportunity was created for the council to redress the significant issues of the existing facility. In particular, the previous building was no longer fit for purpose, with poor access arrangements and visitors often struggling to locate and enter the spaces or services they required.

We spent considerable time creating a detailed brief that set out a clear aspiration for what we hoped to achieve from the project. In our brief to the architects we wanted a building that would be at the heart of its community, in every sense. We wanted a social space: a place full of life, one that will support and celebrate creativity and imagination, and allow knowledge and ideas to be accessed, produced and shared. Efficient to run, and easy to maintain, the new library should be a local landmark: a thing of beauty that is able to respond to changing demands.

In the brief we placed particular importance on delivering high architectural quality and a design that makes a positive contribution to the streetscape, offering a strong and positive presence to the High Road, and we placed as much importance on the public realm as on the building.

Now that the scheme is complete, we feel that AHMM’s interpretation of the brief was absolutely right and, as client, we are delighted to have such a wonderful building for the people of Brent.

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Source: Tim Soar

Engineer’s view

Galliford Try/Linden Homes had the benefit of being involved in the project right from the first-stage competition, so we had a clear understanding of the aspirations of the client and the requirements of their brief from the outset. As Brent Council’s development partner for the project we also had the opportunity to manage the design process, and so were able to offer constructive guidance on procurement and logistics to our design team.

The client brief necessitated a complex design solution that presented further challenges to deliver on site. Starting with the structure, a feature of the design is the exposed concrete soffits, columns and walls. We undertook benchmark pours and worked with the architect to deliver a high-quality exposed concrete finish throughout the scheme.

The patterned brickwork facade required careful selection of the right subcontractor, one capable of laying the detailed patterns using seven different bricks. As with other elements of the design, we provided a number of benchmarks to ensure that the brickwork could be delivered to the standard required for a landmark public building.

Providing the open plan layout that the brief called for, coupled with multiple but also stringent performance criteria for a range of spaces, meant that the services strategy was highly varied and contained numerous points of interface with other systems, including fire safety. These interfaces were resolved by the design team working closely with Galliford Try’s specialist subcontractors through the procurement and construction phases of the project.

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Source: Tim Soar

Project data

Start on site June 2013
Completion September 2015
Gross floor area 4,633m2
Form of contract Design & Build
Construction cost £10.5 million
Construction cost per m2 £2,270
Architect Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
Client London Borough of Brent Council
Structural engineer URS
M&E consultant URS
QS Stace
Artist Studio Myerscough with poet Lemn Sissay
Landscape architect Gillespies
Access consultant David Bonnett Associates
Planning consultant URS
Project manager Total Project Integration
CDM co-ordinator Total Project Integration
Approved building inspector London Borough of Brent BCO
Main contractor Galliford Try
Cad software used MicroStation
Annual CO2 emissions 13.9 kg/m2

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Source: Tim Soar

Environmental data

On-site energy generation 33 per cent of the building’s annual energy demand
Annual mains water consumption 2.2m3/occupant/year
Airtightness at 50Pa 4.98m3/hr/m2
Heating and hot water load 6kWh/m2/yr
Overall area-weighted U-value 0.40W/m2K

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Source: Tim Soar

Specification

White glazed brickwork by Taylor Maxwell Riva Glazed, white body

Polychromatic bricks by Wienerberger

Casement windows to first, second and third floors by Velfac V200 series with solar-controlled glazing 

Curtain walling by Metal Technology System 17 capped with solar-controlled glazing 

Fire-rated curtain walling to south facade by Schüco FW50+ FR 60 capped with solar-controlled E130 Contraflam glazing 

Atrium rooflight glazing by Velux Modular skylight with solar-controlled glazing 

Exposed reinforced concrete frame by Hanson Cement Approximately 37 per cent GGBS cement replacement 

Raised access floor by Kingspan DRF600 Simploc Airseal heavy/extra heavy duty

Sprung floor to performance space by Junckers Unobat 62 System with Sylvatech Plus boards

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Willesden Green by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Source: Tim Soar

 

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