out and about :: london's libraries

Katie | June 20, 2011

Having recently joined the 20th Century Society, the boy and I joined them for “Lend us your books, a day ‘in Libris;'” a day exploring the development of the public library from the turn of the 20th century right through to the 21st; focusing on architecture, planning and design.

Peckham library

We started the day, bright and early, at Kensington Central Library. It was designed by Vincent Harris and built between 1955 and 1960 and is now Grade II listed.  Our fearless leader for the day, Robert Drake, described it as ‘one of the most grandiose library buildings in London.’

Kensington Central Library

When it was built, its traditional style was the subject of much controversy. It was “a safe classical composition in the ponderous Kensington tradition” according to Pevsner. It attracted demonstrations from the “anti-uglies,” a group of architecture students who would have preferred to see the brutalist style of the day.

Here are some of my favourite features…

Original mahogany book stacks with in-built window seat

1930s W20 windows with old-fashioned bevelled glass - an interesting mix of old and new

Light and dark wood 'jazzy' striped columns

Photograph of the original interior

Original bespoke magazine storage

The reference library - with high windows to cut out excess light

The reference library - with high windows to prevent excess light, and original height book stacks (libraries often add height to book stacks, but sacrifice the light)

Desktop storage space

Deco detail in the library's film room

Next we moved on to Marylebone library, sadly closed, which was designed by Edwin Cooper and built between 1938 and 1939. It is Grade II listed. It forms part of a ‘civic complex,’ where all public buildings such as baths, leisure facilities, health facilities and libraries were built on the same site.

Marylebone library

20 years earlier Cooper had won at competition and built his first independent commission; the Town Hall next door. In 1938 he was invited back to build the library, his last independent commission, but not before he’d provided mini-libraries in the air raid shelters and deep level tube stations. The library displays a more pared-back style than his earlier Town Hall; smoother and plainer. Pevsner describes it as “having the Edwardian exuberance knocked out of it;” Robert Drake as a successful “fruition (of) Copper’s stripped monumental classicism.” Either way, it’s a terrible shame to see it closed, full of books no-one can read, with the perfectly balanced light from that lovely reference library top-lit dome going to waste in an empty room.

But in cheerier news, the next library was my absolute favourite of the day and it still quickens my heart just to think about it… Swiss Cottage Library. It was originally planned as another ‘civic complex’ but the (now demolished) swimming pool was the only other public building created. But happily the library remains and there’s lots to love. First the brutalist exterior…

Swiss Cottage Library

…with a lovely example of Beton Brue under the awning, together with finely finished Portland stone aggregate fins (the spaces between which align with the book stacks inside) and concrete aggregate columns reminiscent of the Barbican.

Concrete and stone exterior

All that concrete and stone adds up to a rather impressive exterior, very much of its time. It’s hard to believe this building was completed just a few years after Kensington library.

Swiss Cottage library

Staircase leading to Swiss Cottage library interior

The entrance channels you straight up a staircase that you ascend in anticipation, and once inside; a light, almost Scandinavian, Modernist interior awaits; and what an interior!

One of two pairs of wide spiral staircases

The neutral colour scheme of white, grey and pale wood is calm and sober, while punches of colour (blue in the image above, red below) demarcate different functional areas of the library.

Second pair of spiral staircases

Swiss Cottage library interior

The simple, quiet colour scheme, together with the Modernist forms and  sense of space and light really took my breath away.

Swiss Cottage library interior

The next library was a delightful surprise too, especially given that I’ve walked right past it many times and never even noticed the Festival Style writ large across its exterior. Sadly though, this is all I have time for today, so that gem, together with libraries ranging from a turn of the century example to a library so modern it doesn’t even go by that name anymore, will have to wait until next time… to be continued!

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Founding Editor – Katie Treggiden

Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.

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