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What took them so long?: The British Library saga has precedents. Jonathan Glancey looks at other building marathons

Jonathan Glancey
Sunday 10 July 1994 23:02 BST

THE CONSTRUCTION of the British Library has become the stuff of legend. Will it ever open? Why has it taken so very long? After all, there is plenty of evidence to show that big, complicated buildings can be completed at a hell of a lick. The Empire State Building was raised within a year, Crystal Palace in weeks. Albert Speer completed Hitler's vainglorious Reich Chancellory down to the last veneered and Versailles-like detail in just 10 months, using labour drawn from all over Germany.

More complex buildings than these have been built efficiently and comparatively quickly; one need mention only the adventurous Lloyd's Building in the City of London (1981-86) designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership, and the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank (1981-86) by Foster Associates, to see how the most sophisticated modern designs can be built within a few highly engineered and action-packed years.

American and Japanese architects have long been expert in building and fitting out skyscrapers within a year. Shenzhen, a Chinese village in the paddy fields behind Kowloon, has been transformed within a decade into a city of 2.5 million people and countless American-style towers. Where there is a political and financial will driving major projects forward, as for example in the grands projets of recent French presidents, architects, engineers and contractors can move with acrobatic verve.

These feats of intensely concentrated modern construction make the saga of buildings such as the British Library all the more incomprehensible. One could argue, however, that the British Library has not been slow if one compares it to some of the great European buildings of history. Milan Cathedral, for example, took more than 500 years to complete, beginning with medieval bishops and ending with Napoleon. The wilful, vegetable-like Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family, Barcelona (better known as the Sagrada Familia, designed by Antoni Gaudi) is still nowhere near completion more than a century after work began.

These buildings, however, have been crafted by hand. The British Library has had the advantage of every modern piece of construction equipment to speed it on its much-needed way, yet during its protracted construction it has become difficult to separate fact from fiction. Have basements really flooded? Did an expensive automatic stacking system fail? Are there cases of corruption to answer? Has the architect really asked for ceilings to be removed because they do not not meet his meticulous standards? Will it really open in 1996?

Pity Brian Lang, the Library's long-suffering director who spends an inordinate amount of time writing to the press in defence of what, at pounds 445m, is Britain's most expensive public building this century. Colin St John Wilson, the library's architect, a perfectionist with a passion for Wittgenstein (the philosopher who really did take down a newly- completed ceiling in the house he designed for his sister in Vienna because he thought it was a few centimetres out), has been toiling on the design for three decades.

Of the original team, he is the only person left working on the project. During the course of the building work, experts and hired- hands alike have come and gone, formed into groups and dispersed. This has inevitably broken down chains of responsibility. It has been easy for people working on the library to blame others for past mistakes. Professor Wilson, however, believes that, whatever anyone thinks of the library today, history alone will be the judge of the completed building.

The British Library is not alone, however, in the annals of British building completed arthritically despite (or because of) the huge sums of money thrown at them. The construction of the Palace of Westminster (1837-60) was even more protracted; so much so that a Royal Commission was appointed to find ways of speeding up the work. St Paul's Cathedral took 35 years to build and only Wren's tactical brilliance ensured it was completed in his lifetime.

It is not only big projects that can take a very long time to build. When Alan Sugar, chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, took over the football club in the Eighties, he simply could not understand why the new east stand had taken so long to build with a budget rising from pounds 4m to pounds 11m. It was, after all, a very simple structure.

Delays in major public projects, however, are inevitable as long as politicians adopt the kind of stop- go financial policies that so damaged Britain's nationalised railway network, for example, making long-term investment all but impossible. Of course, the longer these projects are delayed, the greater the likelihood of corruption and incompetence. Short of calling in the Americans, resurrecting Albert Speer or shipping in cheap Chinese labour, the best way to get a major public building completed on time and to budget is to keep politicians well away.

The British Library

THE pounds 445m British Library should have opened last year. It is now due for completion in 1996. The reason it has taken so long to build - the foundation stone was laid in 1982 - has relatively little to do with the competence, or otherwise, of architect and contractors. The project has been toyed with by successive governments. The building was designed for a different site in Bloomsbury. Time was wasted when it had to be redesigned to fit the eventual site alongside St Pancras Station. Successive governments have trimmed the budget. Each time they have done so, Colin St John Wilson and his team have had to redesign parts of the building. When David Mellor, as Secretary of State for National Heritage, toured the site, he expressed great interest in the large programme of public art proposed for the interior and then axed the cash needed for the programme in the next Budget. Meanwhile, the Government has threatened to sell the land needed for the next phase of the building. If it does so, the Library will truly be too little, too late.

No 1 Poultry

THE NEW building, No 1 Poultry, proposed by Peter (now Lord) Palumbo on the Mappin & Webb site next to the Mansion House in the City of London, has taken longer to be realised than anyone could have imagined when it was first suggested.

The pounds 45m building, on which work is about to begin after a 25-year delay, is completely different from the original design unveiled in 1969 and soon rejected by the City Corporation.

Lord Palumbo had asked Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Bauhaus architect then living in Chicago, to design him a bronze and glass office tower to stand on a plaza, and he fought rejection of the design doggedly through two public inquiries, prompting one of the great architectural debates of this century.

Still the City refused to sanction the Mies design. By this time, the architect had long been dead but, rather than give up the project, Lord Palumbo turned to a second firm of architects, Stirling Wilford, architects of the Tate Gallery's Clore Pavilion. Sir James Stirling also died before the building could get off the ground. Demolition work on the existing Victorian Gothic Mappin & Webb buildings has only just begun.

Pictures: Mary Evans, Geraint Lewis

The Channel tunnel

THE CHANNEL tunnel was first proposed in the early 19th century. It is more or less complete, though no one seems to know exactly when the first scheduled passenger trains will run through it from London to Paris and Brussels.

This great civil engineering achievement has been dogged by problems with funding and British railway technology. The 50km tunnel, entirely funded by the private sector, has cost four times as much as Eurotunnel's initial pounds 2.3bn budget, proving that the soaring costs of such projects are not the monopoly of the public sector. It was meant to be crowning proof that Mrs Thatcher's enterprise culture could achieve what the public sector could not.

When passenger services do begin, they will not be cheap: someone has to help pay back Eurotunnel's staggering pounds 7.5bn debt. When the project was announced, a typical return fare of pounds 98 was mooted; now, it is likely to be in the region of pounds 310.

If this is folly, politicians are again primarily to blame. If it had been a public project, funds could have been injected immediately and long delays avoided.

Palace of Westminster

A SAGA close to that of the British Library. The cost of this elongated Tudor Gothic pile rose from a first estimate of pounds 707,104 in 1835 to more than pounds 2.4m when it was eventually completed in 1860.

Rather optimistically, its senior architect, Sir Charles Barry, thought the building would take just six years to finish. Eight years and pounds 1.4m later, Parliament appointed a Royal Commission to find ways and means of hastening the tardy construction. Barry suggested an investment of a further pounds 1m. He was soon being criticised again, this time by the House of Commons for building division lobbies that had to be changed and side galleries that were too small. Here was another pounds 15,000 wasted.

The clock tower, clock and bell caused great problems in terms of casting, fitting and construction.

The bell cracked after casting. A second bell did the same. The minute hand of the clock fell several feet when it topped 12 o'clock and had to be replaced late in the day. Both the building's architects, Barry and the younger Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, died before the completion of the palace, exhausted by their herculean labour.

St Paul's Cathedral

THE IMPECCABLE Sir Christopher Wren survived scandal, a halving of his salary (from pounds 200 to pounds 100) and accusations of corruption in the drawn-out saga of the construction of St Paul's Cathedral. Work began in 1675 and was completed in 1711. Wren, aged 79, lived to be winched up in a basket to view the cross and ball that top the famous dome. Remarkably, Thomas Strong, the cathedral's master builder, endured the 35 years St Paul's took to build.

Funds were far from steady, which meant it was hard to keep construction to anything like an agreed timetable. Wren was much criticised by Parliament for delays which meant the first service could not be held in the new St Paul's until 1697.

An earthquake in Dorset had held up supplies of Portland stone, but the main reason for the delay was that Wren had decided to build St Paul's as a whole rather than in sections. Wisely, he felt that political machinations would enforce economies. He was right. So by raising the walls as a whole, there was no way that Parliament could truncate the building unless it wanted to be left without a roof or dome.

(Photographs omitted)

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