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Mysteries in the library.

THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE BRITISH LIBRARY AT ST PANCRAS

By Roger Stonehouse and Gerhard Stromberg. London: Spon Press. 2004. [pounds sterling]65

The British Library is a major building and deserves a major book. This is a major book, but the authers hold the building in such awe that they make no allowances for we mortals who have not seen the light in the same way.

Personally I am awestruck by the interior, it contains some of London's most memorable spaces, even if I do find some of the detailing a bit fiddly; but the exterior does not, for me, live up to the expectations as to what is appropriate for what Lou Kahn called 'the institutions of Man'. Are we too frightened of the Speer legacy that we dare not create a public building with a noble face? I have always found it strange that Colin St John Wilson's houses on Grantchester Road in Cambridge seem to speak of an institution whereas the library seems to speak of domesticity.

Roger Stonehouse clearly loves the building. He writes enthusiastically about its many aspects and gives a riveting description of the evolution of the design over thirty-five years-those commissioning major public buildings are well advised to go to a young architect if they expect him or her to see the job through! He sees many stories in the design, he discusses these stories, and talks of the building as being within 'the other tradition' of Modernism. I found the arguments fascinating, I could not put the book down, but I did not learn to love the outside, nor to understand why an obviously brilliant architect created such frontages on to the street.

Gerhard Stromberg is a photographer. Now we are used to architecture books with glamorous colour pictures filling the pages. Here we have small black and white photographs, almost all without people. This gives the book a dated look, which is perhaps a relief from the up-to-the-minuteness of so much publishing, and indeed, of so much architecture.

I shall be interested to come back to the building, the writing and the photographs in ten years' time. I have a feeling that they may seem more vibrant, whereas so many other buildings and publications will be found to have been ephemeral.
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Title Annotation:The Architecture of the British Library at St. Pancras
Author:Winter, John
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Words:380
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