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A breath of fresh air

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The new library in March is the first in Cambridgeshire to be naturally ventilated. Bernard Stilwell Architects has used the financial savings to create a contemporary design that uses timber with deceptive simplicity My first thought when looking at images of the new library in March, Cambridgeshire, was how refreshing it was to see such uncompromisingly contemporary design executed in timber. But for the architect, Bernard Stilwell, the material also acts as something of a Trojan horse. 'If we are doing some fairly serious architectural things with severe geometry, ' he explains. 'Timber avoids people's feeling that the shape is too harsh, and hence trying to soften it up. It is something they can empathise with.'

However, this was not Stilwell's only reason for selecting timber. 'The structural sizes tend to be slightly bigger than for steel, ' he says, and in this case that is an advantage.

The main library is a single, wedge-shaped space with glulam beams supporting the sloping roof, themselves supported on the glazed side by glulam beams. There is a steel truss beam running along the centre of the building.

As one looks along the length of the library, the glulam columns form an important visual element. 'You have the feeling of internal space, ' says Stilwell. 'You get a lot of natural light, but you don't feel that you are outside.At the walls and ceiling level, it gives a more interesting feeling of being inside.'

With more slender steel columns, this effect would have been largely lost.

This typifies Stilwell's approach to the building, which has a deceptive simplicity achieved as the result of some complex thinking.

He has combined a number of potentially conflicting elements in a single building, given the town a new urban space and, through careful environmental thinking, found the money for quality within a tight budget by cutting out the cost of air conditioning. This he did through some exhaustive discussions with the mechanical and electrical engineering consultant, Jenks Associates, proving that the building could successfully be passively ventilated. It is the only library owned by Cambridgeshire County Council not to have air conditioning The building was commissioned because the existing library was too small. It was funded by combining it with the register o births, marriages and deaths, and with computer training facilities for Isle College a local further-education college. The £1,250,000 of funds were assembled from a variety of sources. Costs came to abou £1,000/m 2.The site, owned by the district council was disused although in a prime position - near the town centre, beside the River Nene and near a public park. It was also next to a leisure centre that architecturally was 'very mediocre', according to Stilwell.

The site had no real boundaries. Stilwell's first decision was to push the building righ to one side of the site, turning its back to the leisure centre and acting as a catalyst building for the area. By creating a 10º shift between the main space and the enveloping space, it was possible to frame the backs of the town in a satisfactory way and create a new urban space. This twist also set up some interesting geometry, ensuring that the main space, although fundamentally simple, looks different depending on which way one is looking.

The glazed front wall cants forward, reducing glare and solar gain. Set into it are opening timber windows from Velfac, in every other bay - a continuation of the language of timber.

Because the glulam beams are canted as well, the engineering of them was relatively complex.They have been resolved beautifully, with a supremely rational positioning of the fixings. Stilwell worked closely with Danish glulam manufacturer Molven. 'They gave us a lot of help, ' says Stilwell. 'We did virtually all the engineering details, and got Molven to sanction some of it.'Unfortunately for Molven, when the contract for the glulam was awarded, it went elsewhere, to Lamisell. The timber used is Scandinavian whitewood.

Stilwell wanted the shelving within the library to follow a similarly rationalist line, but had to bow to the accepted wisdom of librarianship which decrees that long runs of shelves are intimidating to users. But a compromise arrangement in fact gives a liveliness to the space.

There were other compromises, not surprisingly with a tight budget. The lighting is more basic than Stilwell would have liked. A planned collaboration with artist Chris Drury failed to happen when Lottery funding was not forthcoming. But Stilwell managed to incorporate some of Drury's ideas about water and flow into the design of the external landscape.

No publicly funded project on a tig budget is likely to be entirely satisfactory its initiator. But the March library is an el gant, confident piece of work of which th town must be very proud. By careful ju gling of finances it has created an exempl of a building type that is often under threa And through its choice of architect, Marc has ended up with a building that is bol uncompromisingly contemporary and n at all threatening - a combination achievements in which timber played significant role.


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