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5 August 2015

Libraries aren’t renowned for their liveliness but it’s been a busy few days for the UK’s national one. Although the blocky, postbox-red British Library is accustomed to crowds (more than 1.6 million visitors passed through last year) the institution’s form rather than function has courted controversy and attention over the past few decades. Even today it’s not to everyone’s taste.

Vitriol aside, this weekend it was announced that the structure will receive Grade I listing – the highest billing a building can be bestowed for its architectural and historical significance. This recognition may be a surprise to those who remember the library’s rocky path through conception to execution. Built by Sir Colin St John Wilson and his partner MJ Long among others, the ground was first broken on the site by busy Euston Road in 1982 but dragged acrimoniously on until 1998. Spiralling costs, political wrangles and bad press led many to label the project one of the 20th century’s most controversial. But today it’s a testament to the quality of a building that’s finally garnering some long-awaited appreciation.

Huddled around a sculpture-filled piazza, the hulking structure (that sits over a capacious but unseen basement) is clad with handmade bricks from Leicestershire that match the Victorian grandeur of St Pancras Station to its east. Despite its post-modern form the feeling inside is one of permanence and sturdiness. Travertine floors and wall finishes are paired with Portland Whitbed and Purbeck limestone and granite accented with American white oak flourishes inside. Even the staunchest detractor should be swayed by its confidence and solidity.

But the British Library isn’t just an architectural gem; it’s a useful and much-used one too. Visitor numbers increased 10 per cent between 2013 and 2014. Inside are 150 million books, objects and recordings from Beatles lyrics to the books passed to the British Museum in 1757 by King George II. The inventory swells by 1.5 million items each year.

It’s sadly too late to console the building’s architect Sir Colin St John Wilson, who was pilloried for the avant-garde project and died in 2007 without the acclaim his work merited. The library’s short history reads as dramatically as novels on its well-stocked shelves: bitterly decried but built, ostracised then accepted, its protagonist is a polarising one. The about-turn in perceptions, however, goes to show the value of function over form. A merit that outweighs the aesthetic quibbles of those who insisted the project should have been shelved.

Josh Fehnert is Monocle’s Design/ Edits Editor


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