Wright & Wright Architects’ library and archive at Lambeth Palace is a fitting home for an exceptional collection, finds Rolfe Kentish of Long & Kentish Architects
Lambeth Palace Library, founded in 1610 by the will of Archbishop Richard Bancroft, was dedicated to serve not only the Church of England and the Archbishops of Canterbury but also “the Kings and Common wealth of this Realme”. It is thus one of the country’s earliest ‘publick’ libraries, and preserves and the printed and written heritage of the church dating back over 1000 years – 4,600 manuscripts and 200,000 printed books. Treasures include the Llanthony Priory manuscripts, a Gutenberg bible, the Sion College talmud, the prayer book of Elizabeth I and the warrant for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.
As is frequently the case with libraries and archives, the growth of the collections saw them dispersed to over 20 unsuitable locations around the palace, including the rebuilt, originally thirteeth-century Great Hall, and the fifteenth-century gatehouse, Morton’s Tower. The need to provide better access, environmental and collection care prompted the Church Commissioners for England to create a purpose-built facility on the eastern edge of the palace gardens, designed by Wright & Wright Architects.
The palace grounds, including the public Archbishop’s Park, are sandwiched between the sheaf of railway tracks which converge on Waterloo Station and Lambeth Palace Road, a dreary Thames-side dual carriageway which, until now, offered little to attract the curious pedestrian other than the recently rejuvenated Garden Museum and the Evelina Children’s Hospital. Most will have been unaware of what lies behind the palace’s long perimeter wall, but the magnificent new library now sits decisively on the boundary between the gardens and the cruel A3036, making a prominent public entrance to the estate.
The gatehouse building, with its bookstack tower rising over eight storeys above, recalls precedents such as Giles Gilbert Scott’s Cambridge University Library (1934) and Charles Holden’s Senate House Library at London University (1937), as well as the brick-built Morton’s Tower at the south- western extremity of the palace gardens. There are also resonant echoes of the brick collegiate tower gatehouses with ‘gatehalls’ – often with muniment rooms over – found for example at Queen’s College, Cambridge, and in Lucca’s fortified brick Torre Guinigi.
The new tower is modestly visible in the Lambeth and Westminster skylines, and must be unique in that it houses an archive and not quotidian but attention-seeking office space. Whereas the bookstacks of the British Library at St Pancras are “kept like wine” underground, the books at Lambeth are raised above the ground – and above potential flooding by the Thames, like the four towers of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, on the left bank of the Seine. Unlike the BNF, which has heat-gaining glass-clad towers, Lambeth’s nine-storey tower is a sealed and insulated brick-clad concrete structure with high thermal mass.
The almost picturesque tower-folly siting of the building at the rear of the palace garden is reflected in the surrounding landscaping, a subtle, informal, bosco design including semi-native woodland species and an ecology pond, by Dan Pearson Studio. The building’s lower floors dramatically crank where the main road deflects away to the north, forming a concave arrangement of the entrance hall, the conservation studio and the ground-floor Reading Room around the pond. The relationship with the public Bishop’s Garden is perhaps not so subtle along the opaque fenced boundary.
The massing of the building and the surface treatment of the brickwork joins a noble line of large public brick buildings, going back to Berlage’s Amsterdam Beurs and the Kunstmuseum den Haag, Dudok’s Dr Bavinck School at Hilversum, Wright’s Larkin Administration Building, Aalto’s Säynätsalo town hall, Lewerentz’s Church of St Mark at Björkhagen, and also Giles Gilbert Scott’s London power stations and Harry Weedon’s 1930s Odeon Cinemas.
The brickwork skin to the reinforced concrete structure is carefully detailed, laid in Flemish bond, with concomitant king and queen closers at openings, corners, and vertical movement joints. Some panels have recessed diaper-work, with header-stretcher- header in the form of a cross. The ground-floor walling by the roadside pavement is rusticated with a recessed course every ten courses; the central panel in the tower has a chevron course also. One-, two- and three- course soldiers march over openings, under parapets, and about some horizontal brick support angles. Three tones of Swanage handmade red brick, plus occasional dark- grey kiln-burnt headers, give a richness to the surface, as if woven like Donegal tweed. The texture is legible from a distance and gives scale to the large panels of brickwork, as does the composed positioning of cast iron rainwater hoppers and down pipes. Close up, the recessed smooth buff mortar pointing appears rather neutral.
The stratified ordering of the functional areas is lucid. The elongated ground and first floors are mainly given over to visitor and staff spaces, including the reading room, meeting rooms, the conservation studio and offices. There is a side entrance leading to a service yard and plant rooms. The elongated second and third floors are archive storage, along with part of the fourth. The fifth, sixth and seventh floors of the tower are also archive. The upward journey culminates with an eighth-floor belvedere, where a double-height open terrace wraps around a seminar room.
From Lambeth Palace Road one enters the gatehall, or entrance hall with a mezzanine gallery, reception, shop, and amenities. This double-height hypostyle room in the shape of a Greek cross – crux quadrata – with a concrete coffered ceiling and a cruciform chandelier, is a magnificent point of arrival and orientation for passage to the various parts of the library. With the external brickwork brought inside and a stone-paved floor it is an ambiguous, inside- outside space. The mezzanine gallery has vitrines for the public display of treasures from the collections.
The reading room is reached through a pair of anterooms, providing buffering from the busy hall and road. The room is double- height yet intimate and calm, and naturally lit, enlivened by the southern light reflected off the pool onto the white ceiling. The walls are lined with fine straight-grained oak bookcase joinery, with narrow Soanian mirrors on the half-bay lines. Oak reader tables are solid and large, with leather reading surfaces inset flush with the wide oak edging, and kept clear of light fittings and sockets for power and data which are hidden underneath. The proximity of the reference material on the shelves and the framed distant views out both demonstrate that the needs of the reader have been given due priority – as often epitomised by reference to Antonello da Messina’s ‘St Jerome in His Study’.
State-of-the-art ‘clean room’ conservation studios are housed in a modest sing le-storey wing at right angles to the entrance hall, with an arcade of large windows – or an enclosed loggia – facing onto the water. Skylights provide the necessary even natural daylight to the worktables below.
In the back-of-house staff areas on the ground and first floors the same attention to detailing prevails. Corridors contain the inevitable clutter of riser cupboard doors and fire lobbies, but are ordered with simple painted skirtings, door head rails and pilaster architraves.
On the second, third and fourth floors, efficient closed-access mobile archive storage is close-packed along double-banked single aisles from the central core to lobbied escape stairs at either end. The archives are climate controlled and protected to current standards, in which rate of change is more important than maintaining absolute values of temperature and humidity.
Part of the fourth floor includes a plant room at the base of the tower, permitting openings in the otherwise blind elevations to the archive floors.
Above, on the fifth, sixth and seventh floors, three levels of roller-racked archive storage repeat, and are accessed via the core and a secondary stair. The core benefits from small windows to some stair and lift landings.
On the eighth and ninth floors a metal- framed, almost Miesian, open colonnaded loggia or belvedere houses the double- height 70-seat seminar room and a terrace. There are spectacular panoramic views to the south, and along and across the Thames to the seat of government – the gothic spires of the Palace of Westminster – as well as Westminster Abbey. The belvedere will be open to the public for events.
The Church Commissioners for England have most successfully brought together and conserved the constituent parts of Lambeth Palace Library in this striking new landmark building for the use of scholars and the enjoyment of the public alike.
Wright & Wright Architects
Dan Pearson Studio