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Learning with Pleasure : Lancaster University Library


by Richard MacCormac

This essay first appeared in The Architects’ Journal 18th December 1997


The library extension at Lancaster University represents not only a foil to the Ruskin Archive in terms of specific/generic information, HEFCE lottery funding parameters and so on, but also the development of a number of themes and investigations that the office has been exploring over a number of years and projects.

The provision of high-quality space within HEFCE funding limits the development of a strategy for prioritising cash and effort into key areas within an otherwise well-constructed whole, proving that generous and inspirational spaces can be made on a very tight budget.

The articulation of the inhabitation of a space or shell was a theme that emerged in our projects for a new library at King’s College, Cambridge and for a new chapel at TonbridgeSchool. At Lancaster the edges of the building, both outward- and inward-looking, are reduced in scale by the use of built-in furniture and ‘lids’ of oak-veneered board amd painted steel, creating more intimate spaces for contemplation and study within the larger-scale white concrete spaces.

The notion of local and foreign transactions – applied elsewhere to an exploration of urban form and the comparative scale of public spaces – here is applied to the business of information transfer, the atrium being the place of person-to-person transactions, book loan, IT sales and advice, inter-library loans etc, while the reading room opens up to the wider world, both metaphorically and literally, symbolising both the role of the university within society and the new, non-topographic developments in learning and information transfer, the atrium being the place of person-to-pcrson transactions, book loan, IT sales and advice, inter-library loans etc, while the reading room opens up to the wider world, both metaphorically and literally, symbolising both the role of the university within society and the new, non- topographic developments in learning and information technology such as the World Wide Web, distance learning, and so on.

The commission from the university, and the HEFCE funding package which underpinned this, required a site start within six months of the initial approach, imposing an onerous programme in terms of brief, concept and design development and, in the context of the imminent retirement of the librarian and the appointment of a replacement, almost impossible constraints on the university’s own decision-making process, particularly with regard to the kind of library that it wanted or needed. In its wisdom, the university made an early appointment of the new librarian, and Jacqueline Whiteside and her staff provided heroic and invaluable input into the brief in general and in great detail.

As required by the university, the masterplan allows for the extension to be completed in two phases. The first phase comprises the major public spaces, the atrium, the reading room and the rare-book archive, together with half the open floorplate accommodation and all the plant, service and escape-stair provision for both phases. The next phase will consist solely of open floorplates on four storeys and a single elevation.

In the light of the current uncertainties regarding the likely nature of information and the library in the twenty-first century, the then recently published Follett Report and Lancaster’s own role in exploring alternative learning technologies, distance learning and so on, it was agreed that the building should be designed to accommodate as wide a range of uses as was economically possible.

In many ways this was a development of the strategies identified in the Architectural Review on library design, published by Peter Carolin and M J Long in 1972.

The ranges to the north and south of the new internal street, extending from the existing library entrance area, would flexibly accommodate seminar/lecture rooms, staff offices, book storage, IT teaching and paper or IT-based reading, while uses having specific environmental or structural requirements (for example, archive mobile racking storage, reading room) would be accommodated at the western end of the atrium, forming the major elevation to the Ruskin Archive and the main approach to the university from the west.

The servicing strategy is integral with the spatial and structural flexibility of the building. Raised floors deliver ventilation to deep floorplates which can be subdivided internally. The raised floors allow complete flexibility in the relationship between paper-based and electronically based information. The high-level plant room is above a continuous plenum supported on a series of paired concrete portal frames. Air is distributed laterally and vertically by ducts associated with the portals. These deliver air into the raised floors. The internal street acts as a return-air plenum and as a source of daylight and controlled sunlight. During the design process there was some discussion about the effect upon daylight of placing the plant room over the street.

On balance our feeling was that most ‘atria’ are over-daylit, and that we would obtain a more interesting quality of light if it were forced around the edges of the plant room. The internal street is the core of the combination of existing and new buildings, making the relationship easily intelligible. The new extension brings the library to the forefront of the university campus with the triangular reading room at the apogee of the street acting as a trumpet-like declaration to the outside world.