Landmarks: Bristol Central Reference Library

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The Independent Culture
Very little can be said of 20th-century architecture in Bristol. There are few public buildings of national importance except for two designs by the young Charles Holden at the turn of the century. These are the Royal Infirmary and the Central Reference Library of 1906, which I think is a design of great originality. The library is a fine introduction to the modern movement and was built 25 years before the architect started his chain of London underground stations for which he is often remembered.

The style was described by Nicholaus Pevsner in 1958 as 'free neo-Tudor' but there is a freedom of expression that is clearly influenced by the seeds of the new thinking in architecture at the time. The north facade is symmetrical. In the middle there are three small, projecting oriel windows set against a background of chequerwork which give a dramatic introduction to the form of the building. The south and east elevations are even bolder.

The library solves the architectural dilemma of all new buildings constructed within historic environs. It functions as a modern lending library while showing a sensitivity to the adjoining Norman gateway and the nearby cathedral. It is a lesson for all those making progressive planning policies and designs.

Looking at the library inspires us to think of new buildings in a positive way. We have lost our way in the latter half of the 20th century, both in terms of public perception and in the philosophy of what a building is about. We owe it to the next generation to build modern buildings of the highest quality. Anything less is a betrayal of the art of architecture.

Colin Harvey has been a partner with Architecton, Bristol, for 25 years

(Photograph omitted)

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