Tim Abrahams discusses where Wilkinson Eyre’s Stirling Prize-shortlisted Oxford project fits in the growth of the modern library
We often think of the growth of the internet as the main recent change in the way knowledge is disseminated. What is less considered is that we have just gone through the single biggest explosion in print publishing since the Reformation. According to Nielsen Book Data, in 1994 the number of English language volumes published globally was fewer than 100,000. By 2009, driven by digital printing technologies, it was more than 450,000. The University of Oxford already contained a series of libraries, with the New Bodleian at its heart, and could actually adapt to this emergency better than most, even if that was largely psychological. The idea of the library as a space for reading more than a space for storage was grasped.
Other inadequacies also drove the project. In 1994, a fire in Norwich Central Library destroyed 100,000 documents; not quite Alexandria, but a wake-up call. Giles Gilbert Scott’s New Bodleian library – now known as the Weston – was largely completed by 1937, built around an unprotected steel frame with concrete infills and a Bladon stone façade. Its content then as now was paper, meaning any fire in the library would not only pass quickly through the building but reach a temperature that would buckle the building, causing it to fall in on itself. (The oath one must read aloud when joining the libraries, promising not to bring fire into them, is not entirely an affectation.)
The low New Bodleian after all was never Gilbert Scott’s most admired building
In becoming the Weston, the library has changed from being a site of storage to a site for new kinds of discussions around books. Academics can engage in collective discussion over key books or archival records; archivists can exhibit artefacts such as folios or maps. Of course these changes could have been designed into a new building, as happened at the British Library, rather than a conversion of the existing. The low New Bodleian after all was never Gilbert Scott’s most admired building. Those with a dramatic, vertical orientation, such as Battersea Power Station or the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool are more highly regarded. The New Bodleian wasn’t even his best university library. That accolade belongs to the Cambridge University Library, with its dramatic Gothic-by-way-of-Modernism entrance campanile.
Weston Library by Wilkinson Eyre
Source: Jim Stephenson
Much of the criticism of the New Bodleian, though, seems to miss the idea that it was conceived as a modest structure; a vault for the complex of buildings opposite – including Hawksmoor’s Clarendon – that formed the old Bodleian. Gilbert Scott was criticised by his Modernist contemporaries for the historicist detailing, which obfuscated a building’s purpose. But with the New Bodleian, the building looked exactly like what it was: a repository for books. The building’s form, however, derives largely from its obeisance to its more illustrious, historical context. The rubble stone facade declares it as a more pragmatic, workmanlike structure. It is pushed back behind the street line not just to hide its bulk, but as a gesture to the buildings opposite, which include Christopher Wren’s Sheldon Theatre.
There is in this a certain timeliness. Despite once championing Jacobsen, the Smithsons and Powell & Moya, the university has not commissioned any particularly striking contemporary work in decades. It is said that the university fell out of love with modern architecture when James Stirling’s Florey Building was built, due in part to its poor technical performance and awkward detailing, but also because of a personal dislike for Stirling among the Oxford dons. Following the Florey’s tortuous build, these august individuals took to a campaign of letter-writing to their fellow academics up and down the land, trashing Stirling. In turn, the architect was driven to chasing international work, which ultimately tested his skills to a greater degree and improved his standing. And yet here we are with two Oxford buildings – this and the Blavatnik – being honoured under Stirling’s name. A nice irony.
There is a certain sense that the profession – and not just the university – has come full circle too. While the Blavatnik may remind the university of the power of contemporary architecture to convey its engagement with the contemporary world, the technical brilliance and the spatial problem-solving of the Weston renovation will do more to raise the value of such architecture within the crusty world of academia. The Weston, for better or worse, is a building of our time. Indeed, if the library had been redesigned from scratch it would probably end up looking very similar to a Gilbert Scott building updated by WilkinsonEyre: genuflecting to Wren and Hawksmoor opposite.
The building has been turned from a closed structure into a very real civic space
The contemporary architect, to its credit, has not only addressed some of the problems of the old building but made them into virtues. It has converted the blank south-facing façade into a recessed arcade, and re-formed the plinth the building was inexplicably placed on into shallow steps. Both measures help turn the building from a closed structure into a very real civic space. And I do mean civic. Often the mantra of openness of new buildings in Oxford is merely a device (you can see into the Blavatnik, for example, but you can’t get into it any more easily), but at the Weston it has true meaning. By introducing the logic of the ubiquitous quad to create inhabited walls around a central courtyard, but actually letting the public roam free in the courtyard, it is one of the few internal spaces in Oxford where the will to integrate the civic and the academic is real rather than advertised.
Despite the extensive structural work that went into creating the atrium, despite the fire-protecting and the removal of the Indian Institute extension from 1960 to return the roofline to the more elegant original profile, it is the loving restoration of Gilbert Scott’s interiors that is the scheme’s greatest virtue. Reading and writing is done at an intimate scale. Light from the slim linear fittings illuminates the warm colours of the linoleum-inlaid oak tables to the perfect degree. The environmental control of light and heat is utterly perfect. While there is a touch of drama in the double-height public atrium, the Mackerras and David Reading Rooms are the best shared spaces in Oxford to study. The Weston may not have not have one iota of the drama of the Blavatnik or even the Newport Street Gallery, but it is the building on the Stirling shortlist that will endure the longest.