An impressive exercise in masonry design for large-scale projects
Although it may have taken three decades to complete – courtesy of construction delays and political wrangling – the British Library at St. Pancras (BL) is recognized and appreciated now for its sheer size and brick detailing. Built between 1962 and 1997, the BL is the second-largest library in the world – more than 1.2 million square feet of space with more than 25 million books – and one of the largest public buildings in Europe. (The Guinness Book of World Records currently lists the American Library of Congress as the “World’s Largest Library.”) The architect for this massive structure is Sir Colin St. John Wilson (1922 – 2007).
Wilson’s asymmetrical design for the BL echoes the varying needs of different kinds of visitors in the different parts of the building: the Humanities Reading Room and the Science Reading Room, etc., with varying amounts of open-access storage and natural lighting. Further, the building’s façade reflects and compliments other prominent structures in the surrounding environment. For instance, the BL’s bricks were produced from materials obtained from the same quarry as the adjacent St. Pancras train station (construction began in 1866).
The final design for the BL, which brought together numerous libraries and collections under one roof, features more than 1.5 million hand-made bricks, as well as red clay pavers. The paving is used expansively in the entrance courtyard, which also features an impressive collection of sculptures. But as the U.K.’s Brick Development Association noted in its November 2006 Brick Bulletin, “Although the building’s monumentality suggests load-bearing structural brickwork, it is in fact clad with a skin of stretcher-bonded brickwork that is tied back to the concrete structure by an elaborate system that allows differential movement and is intended to last for the building’s 200-year design life.”
In addition to the regular library space, there are special exhibition areas where closed, environmentally controlled showcases display precious works. According to the BL’s mechanical and electrical engineering contractor, SVM Consulting Engineers, an innovative fiber-optic lighting system in the showcases allows previously unseen works to be displayed to the public.
For example, though the BL is an impressive exercise in masonry design for large-scale projects, to many visitors the heart of the facility is a four-story glass tower that houses the “King’s Library,” a collection of 65,000 printed volumes and maps once belonging to King George III. However, most the BL’s reading materials and other resources are housed in a four-level basement, leaving the main reading rooms rather open and more conducive to quiet study and research. The basement is kept at a constant temperature and humidity, and each level is equivalent in size to a soccer field (roughly 60 yards by 100 yards).
Although Wilson designed many highly regarded public and private buildings during his illustrious career – he was knighted in 1998 – he always will be remembered for the BL. In a touching obituary in May 2007, reporter Nicholas Ray wrote the following on Wilson’s library in The Guardian: “The exterior [of the BL] may indicate the difficulty architects faced of finding an authentic institutional expression in the late 20th century. … But the interior is a different matter. … In its craftsmanship and materials, [it] reminds us of even older traditions: the interior spaces achieve a quality of proportion and detail that is exceedingly rare in our times. … Most important of all, readers [read: visitors] have been generous in their praise. To achieve similar standards in its future expansion, and its inevitable alternation over time, will be a daunting task.”