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Learning with Pleasure : Ruskin Archive


by Richard MacCormac

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

The Whitehouse Ruskin Collection, the largest archive of books, paintings and manuscripts belonging to, by, or relating to John Ruskin (1819-1900), was built up by the educationalist and Liberal MP John Howard Whitehouse (1873-1955). It was origrnally housed in a purpose-built annexe to his educanonal foundation, BembridgeSchool on the Isle of Wight. The need to provide the collection with the secure and controlled environment necessary to ensure its preservation for future generations, and the desire to foster closer links between the collection in the Isle of Wlght and a parallel collection at Ruskin’s former home at Brantwood on LakeConiston, gave rise to proposals to construct a building to house the collection. The opportunity to provide improved access both to scholars and to the public was made possible by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. LancasterUniversity, which is close to the Lake District and has a well-established programme of academic study into Ruskin and his works, offered an ideal site.

The brief called for storage facilities designed to BS5454 for the collection and allowing for 25 per cent additional space for future acquisitions, a secure reading room for eight readers for the study of archive material, a gallery for exhibiting the collection and related work, and all necessary back-up facilities.

The site chosen for the Ruskin Library was the former university bowling green, which forms an escarpment which defines the west boundary of the university and offers dramatic views to the west over MorecambeBay up to five miles away. The main access road into the university confronts the site as it emerges from woodland, and the principal pedestrian route into Alexandra Square, which forms the heart of the 1960s campus, runs across the site. The eastern boundary is now dominated by the extension to the main university library, a commission that followed the initial concept design of the Ruskin Library but one which was developed as part of a masterplan of the site from inception.

The positioning of the building on the westerly edge of the site maximises its impact from the access road and allows it to hold the path into the campus within its geometry, acting as a symbolic gateway or propylaeum to the university. This defensive theme is reflected in the protective form of the building and by the 3m-high retaining wall to the north which forms a massive base along the line of the main pedestrian route into the site.

Between a return in this implied base and a masonry element formed by the disabled ramp enclosure, a monumental staircase takes you from the main path to a raised terrace which runs the whole width of the site, mediating between the scale of the west elevation of the library extension and the Ruskin Library. Viewed from this terrace, the Ruskin Library stands on a plateau of wavy meadow grass like an island surrounded by water, a metaphor for Ruskin’s Venice. This is reinforced by the bridge-like causeway which forms the principal entrance to the building, running across the grass ‘lagoon’ linking the terrace to the building. The materials used on the exterior – white concrete blocks with a sparkly marble aggregate and green polished precast-concrete bands – recall Ruskin’s fascination with Venetian and Tuscan materials and construction, and the stainless steel bosses that define the joints between the precast-concrete bands recall the visible fastenings in the marble cladding of Italian churches which Ruskin referred to as ‘confessed rivets’

From the entrance, the building appears as one church-like volume in which the treasury sits. In reality, the change in level across the site allows for a secure service access off the road at basement level where the back-up facilities and the major part of the picture archive are housed.

The island metaphor, apparent in the siting of the building, is repeated in the archive, expressed as a free-standing volume standing like a great treasure chest, sarcophagus, casket or ark, surrounded by a skirting of glass which allows views of the archive plunging into the basement below. The isolation of the archive in this way also enables the delivery of an environmental condition which meets current stringent requirements in terms of thermal and humidity stability without the need to air-condition the collection. A large window in the archive box faces the entrance. The shutters, provided for night-time protection, recall a medieval altar triptych. Symbolising Ruskin’s preoccupation with Venice, the window is imprinted with an image from a Ruskin daguerreotype of the north-west portal of St Mark’s.

The linear arrangement of the building meets the need for security, with the reading room remote from the entrance and only accessible through secure doors controlled by the curators. The principal route from the double-height entrance is to the first-floor galleries on each side, which are connected through the archive by a glass bridge. The linear arrangement is deliberately church-like, with the entrance, archive and reading room standing for narthex, choir and sanctuary. This is emphasised by a change in level from the entrance up to the reading room with its great west window looking towards the sea. Curatorial offices and reception are located under the galleries. A meeting room is located inside the archive accessed off the route between the galleries, at first-floor level, with a view out through the reading room to the landscape and horizon beyond.

The galleries are defined on one side by a floating lining on the external walls, split by a slot window that allows controlled views into the landscape, and on the other by a series of cabinets built into the battered walls which enclose the curatorial offices and form the parapet to the galleries. These cabinets hold lectern-like sealed and secure display cases with alcoves above for framed works. One of the cabinets forms the opening on to the glass bridge and leads through to the other gallery. At the west end of each gallery is a larger, fully glazed cabinet for the display of larger unframed works. On each side of these, views can be gained across the reading room and out to the landscape beyond. The galleries are separated acoustically from the reading room by glass screens.

The simplicity of the exterior contrasts with the richness of the interior. The use of materials reflects Ruskin’s concerns with appropriateness and the values gained through craft processes. The principal structural elements, expressed in their most basic form, are exposed reinforced-concrete portal beams which span the length of the building. Rendered internal walls are limewashed with natural ochre pigment, and timber beams to the roof structure are gritblasted and left exposed. The battered walls are finished in black pigmented render sealed with linseed oil. By contrast, elements that form panels or linings are demonstrably worked: waxed and polished Venetian plaster to the archive lining; oak linings to the cabinets stained and sealed with a graphite suspension. In both cases these linings are held in oak frames which, on the archive, are treated with joints expressed with polished bronze cruciform inserts. This philosophy is reflected in the design of the reading room furniture, where the primary structural elements are expressed in English oak while the secondary elements are expressed panels of dark grained walnut, in the case of the tables, and rich stained leather, in the case of the chairs.