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Alsop's aloof library lets down urban design

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Letters

I hate to spoil the party, but the award of the Stirling Prize to Will Alsop's Peckham Library is a major disappointment. It is evidence both of the architectural establishment's inability to judge architecture in urban terms and of the profession's failure to invest in external spaces between buildings with the same intelligence and creativity that is so often in evidence in their architecture.

The library stands aloof from the city, refusing to dirty its hands by engaging with the street. Its external area is a shadow of a truly exciting public space. True, there are some high-quality materials, but street furniture does not in itself make a vibrant public realm. Just compare the bustle of dingy Rye Lane with the pristine emptiness of the library's deserted piazza. Alsop's library seems almost embarrassed to be slumming it in downmarket Peckham, such is its disdain for the real heart of this south London community.

I am not suggesting that the library should conform to any contextual aesthetic. It is bright and brash, as befits a democratic public building for the twenty-first century.

My argument is not about style and certainly not some woolly plea for fitting-in.But this library might just as easily have been built in Walsall, Canary Wharf or Berlin, so meagre is its response to the site.

Any relationship with its neighbours is, it seems, purely accidental, and fortune has not smiled on the library. For instance, viewed from Peckham Hi l l Street to the east , the library rears up on its hind legs to frame its neighbour, the back of a run-down shop and its dustbins.

The edge of the library's piazza is bounded for the most part by the backs of equally drab shops. Since the real action in the library takes place on the upper floors, there is no active edge to this space. This, coupled with the fact that no important route passes through the site, explains the piazza's usually abandoned state.

The Stirling Prize could have rewarded projects whose architecture contributes more directly by engaging with city life: Canary Wharf Underground Station, the Walsall Art Gallery or the BA London Eye. Instead we have a winner that is great inside but fatally compromised by lousy urban design. If only Southwark council had demolished the terrace of shops dividing the library from the junction of Peckham Road and Rye Lane, an exciting new public space would have been created with the library as a worthy focus. This could have been coupled with commercial development to help pay for the public amenities.

Urban design is not just a matter of designing buildings in city locations. It requires joinedup thinking to integrate development, activity and movement. It needs clients such as Southwark, whose commitment to good architecture is admirable, to set a similar example by investing in high-quality urban design. And it requires the critics to look beyond architects' own, narrow value system, and to celebrate and reward architecture that wants to be part of the city.

Marcus Wilshere, chairman, Urban Design Group

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