This project proposes a new prototype for the British Library that combines storage for a particular collection with public access and state of the art viewing facilities. Located in Swindon, the Sound & Media Archive provides storage for the British Library’s collection of over 4 million audio, video, and printed music media, ranging from popular and classical music to wildlife sounds and rare performance recordings. This facility acts as a potential prototype for a series of regional outposts of the British Library that would specialize in oft-neglected subsets of its vast collection.
The Sound & Media Archive includes performance spaces of all scales, from individual listening booths and practice rooms to a fully equipped theatre, dance club, and informal performance hall that double as community assets in addition to facilitating unprecedented public access to this diverse collection. Formally, the project is expressed as a big box shed of dense storage which is carved away by individualized performance voids. Each void possesses its own unique character, allowing for a range of listening/viewing experiences. A central aisle binds the interior together, creating a processional route weaving through the storage stacks, organized by media type. Multiple entrances along an exterior public promenade create a vibrant public space that accentuates existing pedestrian routes across the site, connecting downtown Swindon and the train station with the Gorse Hill commercial district.
Materially, the standardized metal aesthetic of the warehouse is contrasted by a rich textural brick that defines the façade and void spaces. On the outside, the brick forms a lettered screen derived from the existing British Library gate in London. This screen creates a recognizable identity from afar while modulating light at views at the pedestrian scale. In the interplay between repetitive storage and highly specific viewing spaces, between clip-on “IKEA” shed and warm human-scaled brick, the project explores the oscillation between the generic and the specific, the intimate and the monumental, oppositions inherent to the uniquely contemporary intersection of large-scale storage with the preservation of cultural heritage.
One of the more interesting typologies of the IKEA showroom was the small domestic islands, displays set up on a raised platform that occupy a middle ground between the fully fledged room mock-ups and the pure display of different furniture types. This little island, complete with shag carpeting, bookcase and chair, and graphic wall hangings, creates a differentiated space within a larger sea of objects. It creates a small refuge that is somehow apart from its surroundings, where people sometimes just sit and watch people walking down the aisle right in front of it.
This proposal encapsulates the key oppositions inherent in the British Library’s identity, especially the tension between the enormous scope and scale of the collection and the objectification of its rare and precious relics of British history. At the same time, the proposal engages the visitor in a progression away from the everyday and towards the intimate but boundless worlds of knowledge present within the repository. The design is achieved by sampling key elements of the British Library building in St. Pancreas, its collection, and an IKEA store. The overall form of the entry is derived by melding together the British Library’s entrance gate and its building section. In the new design, the section is reversed, getting progressively smaller towards the actual entry, a monumental gesture transforming into an intimate and personal one. A diagonal movement from gate to building entry replicates but condenses the piazza sequence at St. Pancreas and creates a new public space in between. Unlike the more exclusive gate of the original library, the entry is left open at the sides, allowing the overall form to become an object in itself, as well as establishing multiple points from which to view and experience the sequence.
This result is transformed further by being formed from the iconic entry screen that is part of the original building’s gate. The letters of the screen are extruded into a solid block which is then carved away. Unlike the original, the letters become quite heavy and physical, especially as they lose their legibility when extruded through space. The letters speak to both a prominent symbol of the British Library as well as the weight of words themselves in the content of the collection. This is contrasted by the fragility of the rare books, represented here by the 1660 Klencke Atlas, the largest book in the world and a key item of the Library’s collection. This book is also melded into the entry as it interrupts the solid form, shearing it and displacing it outwards. The delicacy of the book is captured in a series of shears and bended folds which reach back in space. At first, the book is high and out of reach, dwarfed by the overall form. By the end of the sequence it is at eye level, framing the point of entry itself and allowing for direct negotiation with its unusual scale.
Finally, several aspects of IKEA are incorporated in order to make the entrance more familiar and more graphically powerful. The bright binary colors that define IKEA’s entrance are used here: a shiny red plastic for the carved letters, wrapped in IKEA’s sheet metal siding to differentiate the solid overall form from the intricacy of the letters. Red and white were chosen as the two primary colors, colors which already define the British Library building, particularly the contrast between white plaster and red brick one finds in the interior.
by Stephen Gage
This drawing combines the Klencke Atlas (the world’s largest book), a porthole view of the British Library, and a constellation of hanging IKEA lamps. A series of layers establishes multiple readings of the drawing, with elements simultaneously reading as flat and three dimensional. The circular form that unites all three objects is used to mingle identities, as atlas and porthole begin to read as floating lamps and vice versa. This interest in layered depth and multiple readings stems from the nature of all books, small and flat objects which contain entire worlds within them.