Elizabeth Flower, an associate at Haworth Tompkins, the architectural practice working on the ‘Warburg Renaissance’ project, explains what goes into designing a library today.

Which library projects has your practice worked on? How do they fit into your overall portfolio of projects?

The refurbishment of The London Library is one of our best-known projects. Founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841, it is the world’s largest independent lending library, with over a million books located in a complex amalgam of six Grade II listed buildings in St James’s Square. Much like the Warburg Institute, the London Library has a unique and extraordinary atmosphere that we were cautious not to disrupt through new intervention. We focused on identifying opportunities for radical modernisation without threatening the delicate character of the building or changing its unique appeal beloved by members and staff. Through an analysis of the library, its identity, its capacity and future needs, we developed proposals to extend its facilities and upgrade the existing accommodation while improving the circulation and accessibility.

More recently we have worked with Lambeth Archives to create a new storage space designed to the latest British standards, alongside a public search room and education space. This new relocated archive will improve accessibility and will ensure that their collection reaches a wider, more diverse audience. This project is currently under construction so watch this space.

Our library projects build upon experience gathered on other cultural conservation and collections projects such as the V&A Clothworkers Centre and the National Portrait Gallery. These often share similar characteristics with libraries, with related spaces dedicated to conservation, study and archiving, while also contributing to our understanding of culture and the transfer of ideas or knowledge.

In parallel, education projects including Kingston School of Art and the Royal College of Art help inform the academic aspect of library design and the role it can play in social learning and collaboration.

What do you find most difficult and most exciting about working on libraries?

By nature, libraries are places of collection and accumulation, of knowledge, of artefacts and of history. At both the London Library and at the Warburg we engaged in a gradual process of ‘de-silting’, physically and metaphorically, to highlight opportunities to create space to deal with the fresh challenges posed by the 21st century, while retaining the essential qualities of existing character and atmosphere. This can be time-consuming, forensic work but the challenge is thoroughly rewarding when it concludes in the successful integration of new and old.

What has interested you most about working on the Warburg Library?

By far the most interesting part of the project for me has been meeting the diverse community of staff and readers and getting to understand the wide range of opinions and requirements for the future of the Warburg Library. This community, alongside the complex history of the collection, is a key part of what makes the library so special and the input of the community throughout the design process has greatly enriched the Warburg Renaissance project.

How have architects changed their approach to libraries in the digital age?

This is an interesting question and one to which I believe there are two answers. As catalogues become increasingly available online, some libraries have shifted emphasis onto the more publicly accessible aspects of their buildings, and provide more space for meeting, collaboration and education. This retains the role of the library as a civic place with combinations of active and contemplative spaces supported by technology.

An example of this is Kingston University Townhouse by Grafton Architects, where the library facility is twinned with a number of performance spaces. Meanwhile, schemes such as the new Lambeth Palace Library by Wright and Wright architects focus on the more functional aspects of the building, (conserving, cataloguing and storing), prioritising the preservation of the collection over public functions such as cafes and shops.

These two approaches are equally valid and will be appropriate to different libraries based on their context and future needs. What remains constant however is the human desire to connect with the physical, and so the role of books within libraries is likely to persevere. From an architectural perspective, books bring texture and acoustic quality to library spaces, creating an ideal atmosphere for quiet study. The ability to work from within the stacks, or from within book-lined reading rooms at the Warburg and the London Library, is instrumental to their popularity and success as library spaces.

Are there library buildings by other architects that you particularly admire?

The Library of the Technological Institute in Cork by Deblacam and Meagher is a little-known gem. The use of raw materials (brick, limestone and timber), and the controlled admission of natural light work together to create a space that is both soft, warm and cathedral-like at the same time.

The upper floors of the Alvar Aalto University Library in Helsinki are also lovely spaces, with a rich attention to detail shown through materiality, furniture and atmospheric lighting.

Elizabeth Flower joined Haworth Tompkins Architects in November 2015 and has been involved in many of the studio’s housing, arts and culture, and higher education projects. She was nominated for the RIBA Dissertation Medal for her study into the legacy of Brutalist architecture, and is currently associate architect of the ‘Warburg Renaissance’ transformation project.

Image: The London Library © Haworth Tompkins