Cross-Channel sibling has kept to the storyline
The new British Library may not be much outside, but it is a better building, writes Jonathan Glancey
Tuesday 17 December 1996
Dwarfed, the visitor climbs 36 narrow and steep steps from the street to reach a prairie-like piazza marked on its corners by four identical and vertiginous L-shaped glass towers. Books are stacked in these, shaded from daylight by a web of wooden louvres.
If it seems perverse to house precious books in sky-scraping glass towers, it is: Perrault has courted controversy with a design that must have looked enticing on the drawing-board, but is quite batty in practice. It seems even stranger, having climbed up to the library's great podium, to be forced downstairs and underground to find the reading rooms. Stairs, escalators and lifts lead down to corridors that seem infinitely long (180 yards in fact) and daunting. These lead to a long sequence of grey concrete "salons", each lined in all but irreplaceable African veneers: there is no grand reading room and little sense of pleasure.
One might wonder why this gratuitous exercise in monumental structural symmetry was ever commissioned, given the fact that more and more people are "accessing" libraries through desk-top computers at home. This, however, is not the point: the library is an all-too-visible symbol of French learning and culture and its perversity can only make it famous, if not loved.
The British Library, its cross-channel sibling, is unloved, too, and has been for many years. Perhaps this is because it has taken so long to get off the ground; perhaps it is because its earnest and bricky architectural style, designed by Colin St John Wilson & Partners, has long gone out of fashion; perhaps it is because readers will miss the stupendous domed Victorian reading room of the existing British Library, all but hidden in the central courtyard of the British Museum; perhaps it is because the library is expensive (the most costly of all British buildings past and present) and has fallen foul of technical faults and other farragos during its painfully slow construction.
The Prince of Wales unkindly described the British Library as looking like a secret-police headquarters; it does not, of course: it looks like a giant municipal building that has made its way from Scandinavia, having crashed headfirst through an English brickworks on the way.
Prince Charles, and many other critics, should have reserved their catty comments until they had seen the interior of this beautifully crafted building. When complete, the great lobby, with its its lofty and layered ceilings, will be one of the greatest civic spaces this country has to show. No, it will not be fashionable or daring like Perrault's Parisian folly, but it exudes quality, reassurance and, in an age of electronically retrieved information, a sense of what a library is there for. A library, as the French have obviously agreed, is much more than a storehouse of books. If it is no more than that, then both the French and the British might have built giant warehouses somewhere along their national motorway networks and connected them to subscribers via the Internet.
No; great libraries are built as evident symbols of national culture and the long accumulation of great learning and books and manuscripts that are often lovely to the touch as well as fascinating to read. They are places to meet, to watch other people and to bask in the virtual presence of those great minds that have sat and studied as we sit and study; virtual minds because these are with us in libraries, stacked in volumes that line miles of shelves.
The sheer tactile quality of the spaces and rooms inside the British Library will bring their own reward when the great reading public discovers them in the next year or three. The British Library is a building we will come to respect, if not to love, whilst Perrault's Tres Grande Bibliotheque (TGB) is in danger of neither being loved nor respected. It is too clever a design by half, too daunting and too wasteful of rare and endangered hardwoods to win our minds, let alone our hearts.
In urban-planning terms, too, the British Library is, despite its bulk, the gentler of the two buildings. Its location between Euston and St Pancras and King's Cross stations will ensure that its readers arrive by public transport. The TGB is a horrid place to arrive on a wet and windy day, not least because its concealed entrances can only be reached after a climb up the stairs of the podium and a trek across its exposed top.
If you think either of these monumental national libraries not a little mad, consider the case of the up-and-coming new pounds 170m library at Alexandria: a giant cylinder rising above the city's eastern harbour, its foundations are being dug deep into the water. Books and water: a sound basis for a library?
Perhaps we can work more effectively from home at computer screens, but libraries, especially grand libraries, are as much places of research as they are of civic romance and cultural pride. Criticise them by all means, but those of us who love the quiet and secret drama of major libraries will be bagging our seats - in Paris from today, in London, from 2000.
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