Opening chapter

After years of delays the British Library is nearly ready. Inside it is sumputous and spectacular but above brilliantly designed for the electronic age, as Nonie Niesewand discovers
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The Independent Culture
The new British Library, the Sydney Opera House of libraries, will open in November. Both were designed by visionaries who sought technical perfection. The Danish architect of the building that became Australia's national emblem, Bjorn Utzon, never gave another interview or visited his project after he was shut out of the interior designs by bureaucrats.

The British Library has not been so dismissive of Professor Colin St John Wilson. Nor he of them. What hits the first-time visitor inside the red-brick citadel is that no expense has been spared. Travertine marble, Purbeck and Portland stone, American oak, white walls and ceilings plastered smooth as silk, wall-to-wall carpets, oak and leather-topped desks that conceal computer circuitry, individual desk lamps. Even the fire extinguishers, the same scarlet as the assertive steel cladding on the facade, are hidden by oak doors with curvaceous handgrips. But at what cost to the reputation of the architect and to public-funding projects in the future? The library has taken 25 years to build, and cost pounds 460m, almost two and half times its original budget.

In the countdown to the opening of his great project, Professor Wilson talks in exhausted tones of the importance of more funding for what remains to be installed of the specially commissioned works of art. He sees them as an intrinsic part of the building. It is enough to get the reactionaries going. All that time and money to build that big ugly brick library right next to St Pancras, and now the architect has stuck a tapestry on the wall. Or a statue in the forecourt?

They should wait until they get inside the British Library before they make their prejudices known. "Tapestries and sculpture are absolutely a part of the building, not after-thoughts or adornments to prettify it." Much preoccupied with the synthesis of art and architecture, Professor Wilson is a champion of the "1 per cent for art" which pertains on the Continent. Any public building there is expected to have spent on its artworks 1 per cent of the cost of the building. He accepts that such a sum could not be spent in this case, "but the principle of incorporating works of art into the architecture of a building of this kind has always seemed to me unquestionable".

Three artworks he commissioned are already on site: the huge gate, framed by monumental brick portals on the Euston Road, that spells out "British Library" in clunky iron letters, by one of Eric Gill's pupils, David Tindersley; a bronze of Newton by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi in the piazza; and the largest tapestry woven this century, from the painting If Not, Not by RB Kitaj, unveiled yesterday in the entrance hall. All three have been funded by lottery money, topped up with private sponsorship.

Now just one major commissioned piece is missing from the site, a sculpture by Antony Gormley. Unless the British Library can raise the money, eight columns encircling the amphitheatre built to house eight pieces will remain bare.

Atop a 12ft plinth in the glorious piazza slabbed with Portland stone and banded with brick, Paolozzi's bronze of Newton crouches over a divider, measuring the universe. The sculpture symbolises the division of the library into two wings, Science and Humanities. It is inspired by a William Blake drawing that shows Newton oblivious to Nature as he reduces the universe to mathematical dimensions. Paolozzi explains: "While Blake may have been satirising Newton, I see in this work an exciting union of two British geniuses. Together they present to us nature and science, poetry, art, architecture - all welded, interconnected, interdependent." For the meantime, the bronze is keeping its head down until September.

An air of expectation must have affected the Heritage Secretary, Chris Smith, when he unveiled the Kitaj tapestry yesterday. The project to install specific works of art sought by the architect may have exasperated the previous government, which saw costs spiralling out of control, but Mr Smith can only warm to the architect's commitment to art in public spaces because of that Kitaj. When the minister moved into his new office, he replaced Virginia Bottomley's choice of pictures and chose a Kitaj screenprint of a book cover that reads "The Prevention of Destitution by Beatrice and Sidney Webb".

Kitaj's tapestry, woven by the Edinburgh Tapestry Company, is entitled If Not, Not. Kitaj painted his agitprop work of the same name 20 years ago. It is collaged, with references to Modernism overlaid with death and destruction. Spot TS Eliot bottom left, with his Wasteland around him. Above him, a mellowed building at first glance looks like a Tuscan farmhouse until you realise it is Auschwitz. Palm trees in a shaft of light top right refer to Joseph Conrad' s Heart of Darkness. A sculptural head on the left turned on its side turns out to be one of Matisse's heads of Jeanette. Books scatter the landscape of stagnant pools of water, blackened trees. The man in bed clutching a child is Kitaj, the figure on the right with a satchel looks like a revolutionary in the Spanish Civil War. The colours are sulphurous, sickly with the clinging atmosphere of death.

So why did Professor Wilson choose this apocalyptic work? "It has very beautiful things in it, and very distressing things in it. Kitaj's reputation hinges on the fact that he put subject-matter and narrative into painting at a time when abstraction and conceptual objects were all the fashion. He was absolutely the artist one should pick for some kind of celebratory work in a library which is, if you like, the collective memory."

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art owns the original painting and the keeper, Richard Calvocoressi, believes that If Not, Not is "the pictorial equivalent of Post-Modernism in architecture from disparate sources, with different styles coexisting". So this tapestry is an allegory for the building. A story of the failure of modern architecture to communicate with its users, and the attempt of the Post-Modernists in this space with razzle-dazzle finishes and awesome scale to overcome this failure. It's a cracking good yarn for the British Library.

So much for the art. What about the books? When the Prince of Wales visited the library he complained that it did not look much like one. He missed the point. There are books, 18 million of them, but they are housed out of sight in cooled vaults below. Behind the inscrutable red brick walls are reading rooms for the electronic age. This is the world's leading library for scholarship, research and innovation. Access to its contents is from computer terminals equipped to locate and order each volume - a task the computer does more efficiently than any catalogue. There are 450 desks for scholars, each wired for laptop computer users.

In a separate wing, the Science reading rooms have fewer computer points - 150 - and more accessible sliding storage for scientific papers. This library is certainly user-friendly. Light specifications have dropped, not only to protect the volumes but to throw more light on what is being read or input on screens. "The world today requires not so much light as shadow," says the Italian architect and philosopher Andrea Branzi. "We still say that we have seen the light since it provides both clarity and understanding. But the philosophy has changed. Now we need shadows to make sense of what is conveyed via pixels of light on our screens." In that big ugly brick library right next to St Pancras a new Age of Enlightenment is dawning.