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Ruskin today : building the Ruskin Library, Lancaster

Ruskin today : building the Ruskin Library, Lancaster – by Richard MacCormac

in ‘Ruskin & Architecture’ – ed. by Rebecca Daniels & Geoff Brandwood – Spire Books (2003), p. 357-365


How does a late-20th-century architect design a building to house a huge and varied body of material that belonged to one of the greatest artistic thinkers of the previous century?  The collection includes manuscripts, drawings, paintings, daguerreotypes and books owned or produced by Ruskin himself, as well as complementary material from other sources.

I was no stranger to Ruskin, having read some of his writings and even given a paper about him in Australia.  In fact ‘The Lamp of Memory’ essay in The Seven Lamps had made a powerful impression upon me with the idea that architecture should be able to tell stories.  But this very notion presents a difficult challenge for the ‘modern architect’ (to use an ambiguous term of rather uncertain meaning).  I come from a tradition which was still touched by the ideology of the Modern Movement, and part of that was clearly to shed allusiveness, mystery, history and metaphor.  Thereby it was purporting to be an architecture of certainty which embodied technology and, in some way or other, expressed purpose.  The Bauhaus was thus the architectural counterpart to the Logical Positivist circle of Vienna in the late 1920s.

I had to think carefully about how architecture could escape that reductive state and discussed the problem at length with my client at LancasterUniversity, Professor Michael Wheeler.  He himself had written an interesting essay about ‘The Lamp of Memory’ in which he focused upon words like ‘monument’, ‘story’, ‘history’, and ‘memory’ and Ruskin’s sense that architecture should be ‘historical’.  I came to feel that architecture could delve deeply into our collective memory.  That then made me wonder whether there weren’t ways of rendering the architecture of today ‘historical’.  By this I do not mean, for example, the kind of commonplace importation of Venetian Gothic into Victorian pub porches in Dulwich which caused Ruskin so much despair.  Rather than a matter of historical style, it is a question of making architecture metaphorical and rich in allusion.

In what follows I propose to explore such issues principally in relation to the Ruskin Library but, before that, other earlier projects are discussed which set the scene.  These were designed without Ruskin consciously in mind but allowed me to develop architecture for today which goes beyond mere technology and function.


Antecedents of the Ruskin Library

The library for King’s College, Cambridge, in fact, was never built but the contents to be housed within it were in some ways comparable to the Ruskin project.  The building, designed in 1987, was to accommodate a large and very important archive of manuscripts and books as well as a conventional undergraduate and postgraduate library where the material would have certain shelf-life.  Our proposal was to contain the archive in a massive stone half circle – a kind of tiered burial chamber – which would keep cool through its sheer mass and was not accessible to readers.  It was very monumental and later caused me to reflect that this word comes from the Latin monere – to remind – and the proposed building was to be a great storehouse for remembered information written down.  By contrast, in the centre, there was to be a three-storey library in timber, with alcoved readers’ spaces where the transitory information would be accessible and which we thought of as a kind of rookery.  The library itself was to be above ground while the space beneath was intimately related to the adjoining garden.  There was thus an upper and a lower world – a quasi-crypt with a church-like space above – which had a certain historical resonance about them.  The architecture was firmly of the late-20th century but was aimed at expressing something of the content of the building and its temporal character.

Another building which explores the notion of underworld and overworld came out of the King’s Library scheme and was completed for St John’sCollege, Oxford in 1994 with student rooms over public rooms.  The big public rooms are ‘Soanian’ caverns with gardens on top of them.  The architecture is made up of opposites of the kind that only have significance when considered together: above and below, dark and bright, heavy and light, equivalent to the opposites in nature, night and day, male and female which have meaning through their relationship, not on their own.

The immediate ancestor of the Ruskin Library is a little chapel for FitzwilliamCollege, Cambridge, completed in 1992.  Here the under and over concept is developed very carefully in terms of a small crypt with a chapel space above.  It may have something to do with Gaudi’s Güell Chapel with its dark crypt and (unfinished) bright place of worship above.  I was also interested to develop the idea of a building inside another building (a characteristic of the King’s College project), – in this case the inner construction is an ark suspended between the upper and lower world.  The metaphor of the ship appealed to me greatly, being, as it is, deeply ingrained in human consciousness and religious imagery.  The word ‘nave’, of course, comes from the Latin for a ship and all cathedrals are in a sense ships.  Then there is a further idea which was to find its way into the Ruskin building – the notion of using light to separate spaces from each other, in this case the peripheral circulation from the place of worship.  As in other works I was trying to produce a building that was new in a creative sense, which could not be pinned down stylistically but would be, in some ways, deeply familiar to the visitor and user.  This was also precisely what was in my mind when it came to designing the Ruskin Library.


The Ruskin Library

LancasterUniversity is sited on a pronounced ridge.  The Ruskin Library is sited near the entrance to the University, on the edge of the escarpment overlooking MorecambeBay.  I had in mind the idea of having the building sitting out on its own, isolated, but with a strong individual presence which seems appropriate to Ruskin.  It was to be linked back to the University by a causeway above the ground, floating over the grass – an island, joined back to the mainland like Venice.  The allusion to Venice was fundamental to the scheme, but Ruskin would probably not have liked the reference to the causeway.  Throughout the evolution of the project we were always .trying to capture metaphors.  Such things cannot be forced – one considers the characteristics of an architectural proposition, realises what it might mean and then decides whether ot how to articulate the idea.

We realised we were constructing a building organised like a church with the archive as choir and the reading room as sanctuary.  We began to consider what this structure would look like and how its space would be organised.  It would be entered across a causeway and then, inside, one would find a big cabinet coming up through the floor which would in some way allude to Ruskin’s love of Venetian Gothic – though at that stage we did not know quite how.  The metaphors now became more complex.  Not only was the building a Venice-like island, but within there could be an island within an island, the surrounding floor an allusion to the lagoon and hence made of glass.  As people came into the building they could look down through glass into an inaccessible underworld lit green like the sea.

Another metaphor evolved around the word ‘keep’- both noun and verb.  This was to be a building for ‘keeping’ things secure.  So the outer circular structure and the inner rectangular structure are both ‘keeps’.  At this time there was an exhibition at the Tate by the American sculptor, Richard Serra.  His big iron objects in the middle of the Duveen Gallery had the extraordinary effect of forcibly displacing the visitor from the centre of a classical space.  This was exactly the way the Ruskin Library was developing in our minds; the archive displaces you from where you would normally expect to be.  The collection thus acquires importance from the fact that it takes over your space and so forces you physically to go round it.  I enjoyed the idea of thinking of the ‘corpus’ of Ruskin’s work in the centre and this ‘body’ as, in a sense, Ruskin himself: you therefore have to go around him – I think he would have liked that.

In envisaging the archive I began to imagine it as an enormous cabinet – a three-storey high cabinet.  It was then difficult not to think of William Burges’s ambiguous pieces of furniture which are both buildings and furniture.  Our quite elaborate cabinet involved an oak structure, fitted with blockwork and surfaced with polished red Venetian plaster panels coloured with red marble dust.

In the linear plan of the building, entrance, archive, reading room, the offices were sited on either side with exhibition galleries linked by a bridge through the archive from one gallery to another at first floor level.  With the archive in the middle you pass down each side to reach the sanctuary-cum-reading room overlooking MorecambeBay.

As the design evolved we were finding more and more words to describe the archive – ‘cathedral treasure chest’, ‘great cabinet’, ‘reliquary’ and ‘ark’ – and were reminded of Ruskin’s reference in The Stones of Venice to St Mark’s as ‘a vast illuminated missal’.[1] I had the idea of working with the artist Tom Phillips, who has a fascination with words, to cover the archive. with Ruskin aphorisms but this was, regrettably, beyond our budget, which did not cover the work of artists.

Lighting remained of the greatest importance to us.  Daylight filters down through the whole three-storeys, separating the archive structure from the galleries on each side, just as it separates the centre of the Fitzwilliam Chapel from the periphery.

The metaphor of the inner and outer keep actually found a physical interpretation in the environmental control of the building.  It occurred to us that the very heavy outer structure and the heavy inner structure with lots of air between might lead to the first passively tempered archive in the U.K. – which in fact it has done.  Apart from a small unit in the reading room, there is no air-conditioning as the relationships between mass and volume ‘keep’ the air at the right temperature and humidity for ‘keeping’ the archive.

In the external construction of the library the bands of green are perhaps un-Venetian but the vivid colour is to be found in Ruskin’s watercolours of Italian architecture.  As you go inside there is a vast image of the north-west portal of St Mark’s taken from a 200mm high daguerreotype made by Ruskin.  An artist with whom I often collaborate, Alex Beleschenko, scanned it into his computer – Ruskin would not have liked this – expanded it to 4 metres height and had the image made up in glass with platinum etched into it so that it is a very mysterious thing which is barely decipherable.  I like to think of this as a Proustian metaphor for the fragility of memory.

The reading room furniture was designed with a local craftsman in an approximately Ruskinian way (actually made by Jeremy Hall of Peter Hall and Son).

In terms of materials there is a conscious blend of very modern and very antique – high-tech glass and metal in parts, elsewhere lime rendering and a translucent lime wash.  There is also much concrete – not stone – and Ruskin would not have approved of that!




[1] Works, 10, p.112.