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Weston Library by Wilkinson Eyre

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Robert Bevan finds a working building not a ceremonial centre, in Oxford’s new Weston Library

‘Libraries as we know them will have ceased to exist, and a central television station will wireless visions of books to readers’ homes and they will turn the pages by pressing a button!’

Giles Gilbert Scott’s prediction might not have been exactly spot-on but, for an architect who was something of a traditionalist, he could be surprisingly modern in his vision.

A combination of the historical and the up-to-the-minute were exactly what was required from Scott when he was awarded the job to design the New Bodleian Library in the heart of Oxford, directly opposite the old library and the Sheldonian Theatre. At 11 storeys, it was central Oxford’s tallest building when it completed in 1940 – and still is. It holds the university’s priceless collections in the stacks that rise like a literary castle keep at its core, surrounded by reading rooms, conservation rooms and other library support facilities.

And, while its strange, rubble stone, classically derived facades with deco-ish details create a face for the library that only a mother could love, it also used the latest technology in its construction (some of the earliest aluminium-framed windows, for example) and in its equipment, such as a conveyor belt in a tunnel that shifted books between the New Bodleian stores and old reading rooms.

Bodleian Library

It also stored up decades of problems that Wilkinson Eyre has spent the past four years unravelling in its £80 million project. Not least of these is that the library’s shelves were horribly overcrowded. A second issue was that the building’s parti of concentric squares made it peculiarly intractable to change.

But most vital of all was the realisation that Scott’s innovative multi-storey stack structure of paired steel L-sections was an accident waiting to happen. Voids in the structure meant the entire stack was effectively one fire compartment.  There was the terrifying realisation that one of the most important repositories of knowledge on the planet was housed in a giant chimney above the library’s furnaces. A stray spark could have been catastrophic, with a one-in-three chance of the structure collapsing entirely. 

Wilkinson Eyre has done more than re-shelve books; it has turned the building inside-out

After a failed bid to build a new storage facility on the edge of Oxford, a new book warehouse has been built in Swindon for the vast majority of the Bodleian’s items. A van service will shuffle volumes back and forth. It’s not an entirely satisfactory arrangement but the New Bodleian building itself, now renamed the Weston Library, is dedicated to special collections of 1.4 million maps, books and manuscripts and 2.5km of open stacks containing the Bodleian’s most regularly consulted items.

Wilkinson Eyre has done more than re-shelve books more efficiently; it has turned Scott’s building inside-out.  Where once was a blank and hostile arcade and plinth facing Broad Street and the rest of the Bodleian precinct, there are now steps up to a glass entrance screen recessed behind a line of pillars that lead into the soaring Blackwell Hall that forms the focus of the new building. The Hall is a public orientation space created in the void left by removing most of Scott’s stacks. To its rear are the museum-standard permanent Treasury (with interior cabinets like a branch of H Samuel by others) and a temporary exhibition area by Wilkinson Eyre with a transept between them leading to a perfectly formed auditorium.

To one side are a café and shop, to the other an entrance desk for the library’s scholarly users (there is another existing entrance around the corner on Park Street as well as a long-sealed ceremonial entrance). This internal quad is bound at first floor level by an elevated glass cloister through which the public can see the open stacks of the Special Collections Library in use, while suspended above it is a ‘floating stack’ that hovers within the void and which also contains a visiting scholars centre. Three more levels of stacks are hidden below the new hall’s floor.

Bodleian Library

The Weston’s opening exhibition, Marks of Genius, displays the library’s treasures

The arrangement is inspired by the King’s Library at the British Museum and the Beinecke Library at Yale – but with the dramatics eschewed; the Weston Library is a working building, not a ceremonial centre, and so the floating stack is no ‘holy of holies’ for the veneration of literary relics. The rightful heart of the Bodleian complex remains at Duke Humfrey’s Library.

The space’s dynamism is instead generated via the stack’s discreetly canted walls, which interact quietly with the light washing down through Scott’s characteristic slot windows as supplemented by Wilkinson Eyre’s aligning rooflights.

The restoration of the original reading rooms and the provision of further reader facilities further changes perceptions of the buildings as a hermetic, back-of-house facility to an integral part of the Bodleian as experienced by researchers.

Meanwhile the richness of the original decoration scheme has been revealed, including bronzed screens previously hidden behind partitions, finial-shaped doorknobs and the replacement of lost wooden chandeliers. At penthouse level the satisfying new Charles Wendell David reading room has been created in part by the removal of a post-war extension built to house the Indian Institute. This has not only banished an intrusion on the Oxford skyline, it has created (for the privileged few who can access it) a roof terrace with sublime views across the city’s dreaming spires.

True, Wilkinson Eyre’s internal alterations haven’t been able to entirely remake Scott’s resistant and concentric parti for contemporary use but the transformation is such that it has merited retaining the listed buildings rather than redeveloping it entirely – which was one option.

The Weston, formerly the New Bodleian, may not be a vital part of Scott’s canon but it is an interesting one. Scott’s earlier Cambridge library project had the distinct advantage of not being forced to negotiate a tight city centre site – likewise, Liverpool had its hilltop and Bankside a riverfront. In Oxford, Scott had to negotiate a built-up corner in the heart of an historic city, paying due regard to heights and relating the new building to the exquisite sequence of Renaissance buildings – all this while anticipating the provision of enough shelving for two further centuries of acquisitions. Scott succeeded brilliantly in fitting in an 11-storey building into a city that had already firmly ruled out skyscrapers.

Wilkinson Eyre has succeeded in helping us look beyond the library’s homely face to a warm personality within.

  • Robert Bevan is architecture critic of the London Evening Standard

The brief

The Bodleian Library at Oxford University is among the oldest and most important research libraries in the world and has custodianship of more than 11 million items. It occupies a series of buildings in the historic heart of the university, the most famous of which is the circular Radcliffe Camera, built in the 19th century and now used almost exclusively as a reading room. The dramatic urban set piece of Radcliffe Camera, Old Schools Quadrangle, Hawksmoor’s Clarendon Building and Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre establishes a sequence of spaces leading towards the newest of the library’s central Oxford locations: the Grade II-listed New Bodleian building, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott in the 1930s and located on the north side of Broad Street.

Bodleian Library

View from roof towards the Radcliffe Camera

Wilkinson Eyre was one of six architectural practices which took part in an architectural design competition for the refurbishment of the New Bodleian Library (now renamed the Weston Library). During the question and answer sessions with the clients, it became evident that their aspiration was to transform the library into a centre of serious scholarly excellence while at the same time promoting the collections – and that the written brief was there to be challenged: the Bodleian was looking to find an architect who could develop a robust and complex brief at the same time as retaining a strong architectural concept and clarity of vision.

  • Jim Eyre, director, Wilkinson Eyre Architects

Engineer’s View

Due to the library’s listed status, extensive and intrusive investigations had to be undertaken, and these were further complicated by the library having to remain open while they were carried out. 

It called for careful phasing of work and liaison with library staff.  Working around the library’s sensitive and historic documents required specific protection measures, for example when working near scrolls recovered from the ancient Great Library of Alexandria, which are vulnerable to the slightest disturbance.

The project involved demolition of the existing central book stack to foundation level to allow the construction of two widely spaced reinforced concrete cores, between which a ‘floating’ concrete box containing reading rooms spans an open exhibition space at ground floor level.  The box structure is designed as a deep beam and the complete core and box structure acts monolithicly to carry the structural load down through the cores to the concrete basement box, where it is spread via the existing concrete raft to the ground below. Below the concrete box, the level F slab is suspended from steel hangers, which are connected to the main upper stack walls.

Bodiean - David Reading Room detail

Bodiean - David Reading Room detail

In the basement, 39km of stacks accommodate 1.4 million books and in certain areas the loads reach about 1 tonne per square metre.  Pell Frischmann successfully advocated the re-use of foundations, which we estimate saved almost two months on the project and about £400,000 in construction costs. It required detailed analysis to determine the likely ground movements due to unloading and reloading of the existing raft foundation, which bears onto Oxford Clay. A high-quality site investigation was carried out, with finite element analysis of the proposed load changes and soil samples subjected to small strain testing.

Designing the new structure was complicated by the concentration of services that needed to rise within the cores and the consequent large number of openings through the core walls. Its integration within the existing levels was a particular challenge, as typical floor heights only measured 2.3m.

As a result, low head room above roller and fixed book racking complicated the M&E services distribution for heating and cooling plant, so existing service ducts in the perimeter structure were reused where possible.

Using BIM-compatible software (Revit) in the delivery of the scheme hugely improved the integration of the complex and conflicting elements. Pell Frischmann also used AutoCad and 3D Studio Max  advanced analytical tools, which link seamlessly to our Revit models, enabling us to build a conceptual structural model of the development to review key structural behaviours.

This allowed our engineers, working alongside Wilkinson Eyre, to resolve conflicts before they impacted upon the design.  These included potential issues arising from column positions, service penetrations, load transfers and heating using ground source heat pumps combined with natural ventilation.

  • Mihalis Chatzis, Pell Frischmann

Architect’s view

Our vision for this project was to create a cultural landmark, preserving and restoring the best of Giles Gilbert Scott’s original design for the library while breathing new life into the space and accommodating 21st century working methods.

Three fundamental challenges were presented to us by the client: to create a new environment for scholars to study the Bodleian’s special collections; to upgrade the book storage to modern archival standards; and to allow wider public access to the collections through exhibitions and events.

In addition,  Wilkinson Eyre felt strongly that there was an urban design challenge to improve the setting of the building and reinforce the connection between the Weston Library and its famous neighbours.

Bodleian Library

Internally, Scott’s original building followed the typology of the Oxford quadrangle – albeit inverted – so that the central ‘quad’ was fully occupied by an 11-storey book stack. Removing this allowed us to create new basement stacks and give the ground floor over to publicly accessible space for exhibitions, events and a café.  The resulting void contains a new volume of accommodation that appears to float over the space and is set slightly within the perimeter to allow daylight to filter in. On entering the building through the newly arcaded facade, the space opens up, unexpectedly lit by the slotted rooflights above. A glazed gallery of books surrounds the space at first floor level and sets the ambience.

Externally, Broad Street now terminates in a wider public space, creating a meaningful connection between this newly opened frontage and the core Bodleian Library Buildings opposite – the historical heart of the university that makes up one of the most remarkable sequences of urban spaces in the world. 

  • Jim Eyre, Wilkinson Eyre Architects

Client’s view

The refurbishment of the new Bodleian Library, now known as the  Weston Library, was driven by the need to transform the libraries’ infrastructure for preserving collections, and its facilities in order to provide innovative services for 21st-century scholars.

None of this would have been possible without the sensitive and inspired conversion of the building by  Wilkinson Eyre Architects. The transformation of a somewhat daunting 1930s building into a welcoming centre of scholarship has successfully retained and restored the best of the Art Deco interior, complementing it with state-of-the-art facilities housed in welcoming spaces.

By introducing light from above and most ingeniously through layers of structural walls, the whole building has come alive. 

Bodleian Library

The David Reading Room

The project had three main aims: to create high-quality storage for the libraries’ valuable special collections, including rare and unique manuscripts, books and maps; to develop the libraries’ space for the support of advanced research; and to expand public access to our great treasures through new exhibition galleries and other facilities.  The aim was also to improve the overall speed of access to materials in the special collections, improve environments for teaching and direct engagement with learners of all ages and improve access to digital technologies to support advanced research.

For the first time the library’s new spaces will allow public access to the university’s collections.  This is possibly one of the most remarkable elements of the project. Opening up the work of the libraries and the research facilities available is an exciting new venture for the Bodleian.

  • Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian
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