Observations: Work at the London Library continues on the quiet

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The Independent Culture

"The true university of these days," said Thomas Carlyle, founder of the extraordinary London Library in 1841, "is a collection of books." Even if most of them are currently ensconced and partitioned off in what has become a complex Rubik's Cube of a building site in which the dusty and occasionally clangorous work of 80 tradesmen proceeds, virtually unnoticed, within feet of the library's musing members.

The LL's million books, increasing by several thousands a year, has demanded an 8m remodelling of the building's interior, most of which's necessary tonnage of cement and other materials has been shouldered in as the library's members muse in the reading room, or pad along the Victorian cast-iron grillage between the 15 miles of shelving in the bookstacks, following the stencilled, nanny-whip index fingers of the manicules pointing imperiously towards Science and Miscellaneous, or Philosophy and Anecdotes.

There cannot have been such a complex architectural intervention in an historic London building since the construction of the new Lloyds Register in 2000, which required materials to be inveigled into St Katherine's churchyard via a temporary hole punched through the original Grade I-listed Register building. The LL's remarkable transformation, by architect Haworth Tompkins, is almost occult, divided by thick layers of plasterboard from the points of contact between old and new, sweat and swots.

There has, though, been a bit of a hoo-ha about the apparent need to preserve the men's lavatories on the library's second landing. Can't imagine why. I've seen vastly more impressive Victorian and Edwardian loos in the original Brighton Arts Club and care of an impromptu guided tour by Sir Terry Farrell on the dockside in Hull. The LL's 7,000 members may be placated by Martin Creed's quirky tile selections for the lavatories in the new parts of the building. Haworth Tompkins' decision to tile the floor of the light-well with black asphalt blocks seems less convivial, a rather starkly modernist contradiction of the inherently illuminating purpose of the space.

But never mind: through the scaffolding, the scrums of workmen, the sweet and sour smells of glue and dust, and the beautifully burnished and faintly erotic twilight of the new Times Room, it's clear that the reconfiguration of this literary temple this university in a townhouse will re-invoke the "thoroughly agreeable manner" of Carlyle's library when the plasterboard partitions are removed from the Issue Hall and humped out through Mason's Yard in December.

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