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

Dominique Perrault's library is a structural tour de force, an architectural conundrum and not a very pleasant place to be.

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.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

ICT Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a qualified ...

DT Design and Technology Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are urgently for ...

Maths Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an experienc...

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on