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Space odysssey

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PUBLIC BUILDING: Sutherland Lyall explores reverse classicism in the heart of England

Right now the new Rugby public library and gallery overlooks a car park rather than the civic square which was the original intention. There is still a chance of this happening and it would be good if it did for, thus isolated, the building looks overly rhetorical with its formal symmetrical facade and three-storey allglass reverse-apse entrance.

Because you can't see round the back, what you are only faintly aware of is that this entrance structure is a severe geometrical shape. It is one side of a thick brick tube with a glass hollow core whose roof slopes down into its centre. So that, despite the underlying classical quality, it has all been reversed: a recessed centre rather than a dominant one, the gables either side sloping the wrong way, and a curious agricultural rather than pompous civic quality. Agricultural in the sense of Italian farmhouse. The brick tube bit is real because the curving ridge of the roof is supported all the way round on a parapet wall which is itself semi-circular in plan.

Behind the glass entrance wall with its fins and spiders is another classical element: a curving row of white twostorey-high columns supports the attic third level containing the art gallery and, a floor below, a curving balcony fronting the first-floor museum space.

All white, it is an impressive space but, because of its unusual and directionless relatively narrow half-ring shape, you are not quite sure what its real purpose is apart from being a narrow space you walk across to get into the library.

Exciting volumes The library beyond is a big barn but before the entrance attaches to it there are further complications in the form of a circular brick tower, an orthogonal brick and glass stair tower and a curving roof snuggling up alongside the half-cylinder of the entrance block.

This section, at first- and second-floor level at least, accommodates the city's art gallery and museum. Inside at ground level this space is occupied by a children's library and then the great library space: with a mezzanine occupying the floor area above the book stacks all under a wonderful swooping roof with terrific clerestory light pouring in from the east. It's probably quite distracting because it's such a nice space to be in.

And then you notice the complications: the roof does actually swoop because it has a double curvature and, just to make sure you notice this, it is supported on great steel cellular beams. Libraries are traditionally quiet, rather withdrawn places. This is quiet but withdrawn it certainly is not and you start to wonder why all libraries should not be exciting places to be in.

Asymmetrical composition Outside again, you walk round the right-hand side of the entrance and the severe formality gives way to an asymmetrical composition of threedimensional shapes in brick. The squat tower is the dominant form and you notice wryly that the long curving horizontal window at second-floor level has an adjoining U-shaped window arrangement. Neither of these could have been possible without supporting lintels and some kind of internal propping structure. It is as if they have been sculpted out of the soft brickwork of the tower. You notice wryly because job architect David Glazebrook has just told you that the selection of boring old stretcher bond was certainly cheaper than other more interesting bonds but was actually the only bond which truly reflects the single-skin nature of this wall structure. And that the use of soldier bond on one of the adjoining walls reflected the purely screen nature of that wall. You can't expect total consistency in this business.

It may be a regional thing but there has been a lot of rather pale brickwork north of the 52nd parallel: Alan Short's sustainable buildings, as a random example, are all in the same kind of brick. Speaking from the deep south, you wonder why architects from the north seem inclined to deny the dark red brickwork heritage of the industrial past. It is not just industrial because Rugby School, in quite bright red bricks and lots of stone dressing, is just across the road from the back door of this library.

Glazebrook points out that the design team had quite deliberately decided to go for a match with other parts of the school which are in honeycoloured stone not unakin to the colour and texture of old London stocks. And yes there is something in the regional thing. Glazebrook says: 'Here in the Midlands we find the traditional dark red brick quite oppressive when it's used en masse. Here we seized the opportunity to use a lighter brick and make a match with the Rugby school stonework which is nearby and on roughly the same scale as the library.'


Client Rugby Borough Council Architect Crampin Pring McCartney Gatt Sructural Engineer Arup Contractor Alfred McAlpine Special Projects

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