Thoughts on the British Library

Recently a friend fixed for us to visit the British Library. Inside the British Library there is a big architectural model, of the British Library. Which looks like this:

I have never really given much attention to this building, which I now regret. Because, what a very interesting building it is.

In contrast to most of the modern architecture being done in London at the time when the British Library was built (it was opened in 1973), the British Library looks more like an assemblage of buildings than a building built all at once. Most of London’s big new architect-designed buildings from that time look geometrically pulled together, so to speak. It’s as if the architect was looking for the one big simple shape that would accommodate all the bits of the building, like someone designing the packaging for a complicated bit of equipment that consists of a number of different bits.

But with the British Library, the only unifying principle at work is that all the buildings are made with the same red bricks. That’s how you know it’s all the same building. Otherwise, the way it looks is that way because that was the way the particular bit of the building in that part of the building needed to look. It’s not so much a design as an agglomeration. A brand new exercise in the picturesque. Lots of buildings, all different from each other, all jumbled together, and all built in a similar style.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the British Library”

  1. Brian, although the British Library as an institution came into being in 1973 (being at that time made independent of the British Museum) the building on Euston Road didn’t open until 1998, albeit the initial version of the design was completed in 1978. Alastair

  2. Ah. Shows you how much attention I was paying, doesn’t it.

    However, most of the quarter century gap between when I thought it opened and when it did open was delay in building what had already been designed rather than delay in actually designing it.

    I remember Sandy Wilson (titular architect – although his wife had a lot to do with it also) of the British Library, teaching at Cambridge when I was there, briefly. I have a recollection of him already being the architect of the British library even then, around 1970. Which makes sense given how complex the design process must have been. But, it could be I just noticed his name then, and heard about his British Library work a bit later.

    I think I ignored the building, partly, I think, because it seemed like a muddle. Which is the very quality I now find myself liking about it.

  3. When I first came to London in 1991, someone (my PhD supervisor, actually) pointed it out as we walked passed, and commented that it was taking an endless amount of time to build. It was another seven years before it was opened – well after I had finished the PhD and gone home…

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