“My delight is in the neatness of everything,” wrote Samuel Pepys in his diary in 1663, “and so cannot be pleased with anything unless it be very neat, which is a strange folly.”
He was referring in part to the fastidious organisation of his magnificent collection of books. By the time of his death in 1703 he had amassed 3,000 of them, which he left to his alma mater, Magdalene College, Cambridge, to be housed in a dedicated building with his name above the door. He gave strict instructions that his library be kept intact for posterity, without addition or subtraction, its contents arranged “according to heighth” in the bespoke glass-fronted bookcases he had especially commissioned. The responsibility came with an added threat: if one volume goes missing, he instructed, the whole library must be transferred to Trinity.
The precious gift had a downside. The sanctity of Pepys’ collection meant that a functional library for students to study in always took second place, tucked into cramped side rooms of the grade I-listed building, unrenovated since the 1960s. Now, over 300 years since his bequest, a brand new college library has been built right next door to Pepys’ precious trove. Its modern collection of books may not be arranged in height order, but it’s fair to imagine that the meticulous diarist would be delighted by its neatness.
“There was a great sense of trepidation about building a new library in such a sensitive location,” says Níall McLaughlin, the London-based Irish architect of the project. Thankfully he has form in daunting contexts. From inserting a museum into the princely surrounds of Auckland Castle in Northumberland, to erecting a little stone temple for harpsichord recitals in the middle of Trinity Hall, his buildings manage to hold their own while respecting their stately neighbours. They fit in, but have their own forceful tectonic presence, avoiding the common pitfall of being overly deferential to the weight of history.
The venerable context can have a paralysing effect on Oxbridge college clients and their architects, forcing some to opt for lifeless pastiche. Selwyn College, for example, has just completed a new library and auditorium that looks like something from a neoclassical toy town, a clumsily proportioned box, crowned with a bizarre campanile. Designed by Porphyrios Associates, it is comically misjudged, the search for gravitas resulting in something more redolent of a Poundbury Holiday Inn.
The new Magdalene library, by contrast, is an accomplished reinterpretation of tradition. “Settled” was the adjective that the then-master of the college, Dr Rowan Williams, kept returning to during the design process, to describe how he wanted the library to feel, and McLaughlin has responded deftly with a building that has a timeless air.
Facing the Fellows’ Garden with a row of tall brick chimneys, flanking pitched gables and oak bay windows, the library takes an almost Jacobean form, only filtered through a stripped, modernist lens. Its facade recalls the striking row of chimneys along Trinity College’s south range, which march like sturdy sentinels down Trinity Lane; but, rather than rising from fireplaces, here the flues provide natural ventilation, expelling air from the reading rooms. McLaughlin cites Louis Kahn as his chief inspiration, whose 1950s Richards medical research laboratory in Philadelphia was structured around great brick flues. “I like Kahn’s idea that the chimneys simultaneously carry the load of the building down, and warm air up,” he says. “In our building they also provide the overall structure, creating a sort of ‘tartan’ grid that organises the whole space.”
The tartan structure is evident as soon as you walk in. Pairs of chunky glulam timber beams shoot across the ceiling, intersecting with beams running in the other direction, forming a kind of hashtag motif where they cross. They support the weight of cross-laminated timber floor slabs, transferring the load on to concrete lintels, which are then tied into the tall brick piers, the materials carefully stitched together as in a piece of fine tailoring. Everything you see is doing its job: this is not skin-deep cladding for a hidden concrete structure, as is so often the case, but the actual stuff that holds the building up.
“I wanted the language of load and support to be legible,” says McLaughlin, channelling shades of the brick-whispering Kahn. Oak bookshelves and desks are slotted in between the structural elements, demarcated as pieces of furniture, so as not to be confused with the load-bearing bones of the building.
The tartan grid creates an alternating rhythm of narrow and wide spaces, the former used to house stairs and bookcases, the latter defining square reading rooms and group study areas. The rigorous structural logic is then played with across the three levels, with floors removed in places to form lofty double- and triple-height voids. The various openings mean that you get continual views across, up and through the three-dimensional grid of books, desks and students at work, creating a vertical theatre of studiousness. Each square bay is crowned with a vaulted lantern roof, glazed on each side to bring daylight flooding in from all directions, making the building feel like an airy pavilion in the garden, nestled among the ancient yew trees.
The layout creates inviting niches and cosy cubbyholes, with desks set into bay windows, slotted between the chimneys, and arranged around the galleries, so you can be tucked away, but also feel part of the bigger collective whole. “Students come to the library so they can work separately but together,” says deputy librarian Tom Sykes. “It’s motivating to see other people working, but you also need to be able to concentrate, or hide away. This building provides a wonderful mix of spaces, so there’s something for everyone.”
It caters to all tastes, from the recluse to the exhibitionist. One desk projects right out into the middle of a triple-height void, visible from all sides – what McLaughlin calls “the prima donna desk,” for the student who wants everyone to know they’re working. Others are tucked between the chimney breasts in secluded dens of oak joinery, with arrow-slit ventilation flaps that open to give a glimpse of the river beyond. “It’s great that the students can control their own immediate environment, with manual blinds and shutters for fresh air,” says Sykes. “We’re open 24 hours, so it’s important that the building can just function on its own without too much management.”
On first sight of the open-plan design, he feared it would be an acoustic nightmare, but the building has proved remarkably quiet so far, thanks to acoustic buffers hidden in the ceilings. A dedicated social room – named after Rowan Williams – provides a release valve for eating, chatting and generally lounging around with a view of the garden, while the next-door gallery offers space for temporary exhibitions, lined with big oak doors that open out on to the lawn.
The building has received rave reviews from students so far, although some are nostalgic for the musty carpet aroma of the old library. “It’s still there,” says Sykes. “Maybe we can cut it up into pieces and offer it to people who miss the smell.”