City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Swiss Cottage Library

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As part of last week’s London Open House weekend, I attended a talk by architects John McAslan and Partners on their recent restoration of Swiss Cottage Library. The talk was at the Margaret Howell shop on Wigmore Street (just about my favourite shop) where they have small exhibition about the Library, comprising an original model and some fabulous photographs.

Swiss Cottage Library was designed by Sir Basil Spence (Coventry Cathederal, University of Sussex, British Embassy in Rome etc) and built from 1962 to 1964, alongside a now demolished swimming pool (the plans were actually for a whole new civic centre for Hampstead – ditched when Camden took over the borough). It’s now seen as an absolute landmark in British modernist architecture, but like so many equivalent buildings – and so many libraries, sadly – it was neglected and eventually run down, literally falling down.

In 2000, John McAslan and Partners were commissioned to restore the building, being specialists in modernist renovation. Their other projects include the recently restored Peter Jones store in Chelsea (photos to follow); the Bexhill-on-Sea De La Warr pavillion (spot the fragment of that building here); Frank Lloyd Wright’s Florida Southern College; a Charles Rennie Mackintosh house in Northampton; and soon, the Trellick Tower (good luck!). Encouragingly, they declared themselves not of the ‘tweed jacket’ school of restoration – instead trying to remain true to carrying forward the original motives of the building, rather than just preserving.

Adam Brown from John McAslan gave a hugely engaging talk. I didn’t take notes but a few key themes I remember:

  • Interesting aside on how difficult it is to work with modernist buildings given their focus on functionality – if the function changes over time, the building can resist change. With the library, Brown kept alluding to how difficult it was to work with certain layers, given the amount of change required (not just in contemporary services etc, but in building in the modern notion of what a library is (internet access, coffee shops, DVD lending – as well as books).
  • A further problem with the original library was less-than-clear wayfinding within the library. So McAslan & Partners moved the information desk to the top of the central staircase from the entrance, as well as colour-coding certain sections via use of spot colours (on walls, floor etc.); articulated the central passage with varying sections of wood and glass; and used a particularly transparent glass throughout the first floor to enable one end of the library to be seen from the other, through the various sections cutting across the library; as well as introducing clearer signage, and so on.
  • Brown spoke of British architecture beginning to lead the world at that point, particularly and intriguingly via brutalism (see also earlier entry on Smithsons), which arguably laid the foundations for the strong British architecture industry now.
  • Spoke of the complete “surety of touch” in Spence’s work in this building, as opposed to some other earlier British modernist buildings they’d worked on (principally referring to a Wells Coates building in South London). The building feels utterly coherent – the entire place is laid out on a master grid structure, from the exterior vertical-stripped shell through to all the door handles on all the doors lining up. This gives an almost subconscious sense of coherence and rigour – an intangible but very real sense of rigour to every aspect of the Library building.
  • The swimming pool originally built next to the Library had to be demolished, though a new leisure centre is being built in the same space by Terry Farrell. A ratehr less-distinguished apartment block is also being built in the same block, by Barrett. In a nice touch, the fragments of stone from the original swimming pool have been reused in the curving walkway surrounding the Library. A subtle way of layering history into the building.
  • Overall, that there seemed to be a growing swell of interest, opinion and rediscovery of British modernism (cf. Bexhill, Trellick, Daily Express building, Senate House, etc) which should be incredibly inspiring to designers working across all fields today, modernist in approach or not.

On the Library itself, from a panel at the Margaret Howell display:

“The interior of the library was planned to create an informal atmosphere with glazed screens instead of solid walls used where possible to assist the impression of a continuous space. The central atrium is the heart of the building, conceived as an exhibition foyer extending through two floors. At either end of the two floors are large lending and reference libraries. The overall impression of the interior is one of abundant daylight. The central atrium forms the visual and social heart of the building. After its recent restoration by John McAslan the elegance and rigour of the original building has reemerged and its use significantly extended to address the needs of the community.”

The shop is currently displaying a model of the building (click for a closer view):

Swiss Cottage Library model at Margaret Howell (thumbnail) Swiss Cottage Library model at Margaret Howell (thumbnail)

And some fantastic original ’60s fashion shoots at the Library (click on the montage for some closer looks):

60s fashion shoots at Swiss Cottage Library

Howell herself spoke about the Library, and her mini-exhibition, in The Observer magazine last weekend.

“It is a very good, sympathetic renovation. The shape is so complete and abstract. The swimming pool was all horizontal lines and this is vertical lines. There is something very solid and comforting about it. It has very nice proportions – well detailed, like the Festival Hall … You come into the entrance hall and immediately have a sense of warmth from the wood. It’s nice to have some breathing space. There is a low ceiling, but it’s not oppressive. It’s a very symmetrical building. Often libraries can be dark and studios, but this has a lightness and modernity.”

Howell’s shop is branching out, beyond her beautiful clothes, into furniture and modernist design in general (providing a further escape for modernists north of Oxford Street, what with Skandium’s big store on Marylebone High Street and the Target Gallery on Windmill Street). She’s overseen the reissue of classic late-50s chairs and tables by post-war British manufacturer Ercol, and her shop is increasingly full of books on the Festival of Britain and the like. Howell’s clothes, whilst sharing the hefty price tag that ended up being the ultimate irony of modernist design for the masses, also share the care, attention to detail, rigour, and near perfect craft of good North European modernism. Such as that of the Swiss Cottage Library.

Even visiting the Library on a typically overcast London autumn day, the place was full of light and life. The exterior form of the library is highly distinctive. The vertical struts upon the shell (don’t think this is a curtain wall) are immediately clearly part of that master grid, lining up with window frames below. The interior is characterised by a fine long staircase leading direct to the middle of the building, with curved spaces at either end featuring some quite beautiful curved staircases.

The wayfinding additions are interesting: the colour at each end certainly helps code the library; I’m not sure about the Two Cultures-like split of arts and sciences here (the library is divided down the middle this way), but I suppose it will be easier on the whole; the signage is very clear (helped perhaps by the building’s extremely clear form itself) and nicely written in terms of tone.

I have some hastily snapped photos of these signs and the Library in general (click thumbnails for larger images).

Swisscottage_ends Swisscottage_quietzone Swisscottage_entrance Swisscottage_strutsclose Swisscottage_smallvisitor Swisscottage_desk Swisscottage_longcurves Swisscottage_wayfinding Swisscottage_instructions Swisscottage_stairs2 Swisscottage_oldlady Swisscottage_crane Swisscottage_trees Swisscottage_interiorcurves Swisscottage_stairscurve Swisscottage_exterior2 Swisscottage_exterior Swisscottage_finish Swisscottage_librarian Swisscottage_stairs Swisscottage_visitors

And, as if to prove that modernism needn’t at all be sterile ‘heritage industry’ fodder these days, I can report that the Swiss Cottage Library seems to be in rude health, heavily used by the community. You don’t have to wait for London Open House to visit this public building. Visiting on Saturday, even towards closing time, the place was incredibly busy: cafes, reading rooms, galleries, reference sections, all full, with an incredibly wide cross-section of visitors, as far as I could tell. The figures would seem to back this up too. From the Camden website:

“Approximately £250,000 worth of new stock was bought as part of the refurbishment and this has proved to be a success with the increased lending of books, CDs, DVDs and videos. Since the library re-opened to the public in April 2003, lending increased by a massive 40 per cent from May to December of last year, compared with the same period the year in 2002, before the library was restocked. Membership for the same nine-month period also increased by over one hundred percent compared with the same period in 2002. In October of 2003, nearly 700 new members joined the library. Visitor numbers to the renovated library also increased by 27 per cent for the same 2003 period. During November visitor numbers were at such a peak that an average of 1,300 people were visiting the library each day.”

So the Library isn’t preserved in aspic at all – nor has it been inappropriately converted to what our idea of the ’21st Century Library’ might be. It’s taken on the demands of our society but fitted them neatly into the existing frame of the classic public library form, gently adapting this fine building towards the future. It’s being used, and is therefore already looking unlike the architect’s images above – occasionally untidy; random posters pinned up; kids running up and down the stairs; older people shuffling around in search of today’s paper; students slouched in the fine chairs – but it’s such a discreetly confident building that it looks like it can take all that can be thrown at it. And at the end of the day, it still feels light, spacious, clean, usable, approachable, warmly glowing with genuine civic pride. Quietly inspiring.


6 responses to “Swiss Cottage Library”

  1. Alex Avatar

    I bought a restored original Basil Spence desk from the Swiss Cottage library – brushed steel frame, afrormosia top. Really lovely – am typing this on it right now… A company called Retrouvius bought all of them up during the restoration and i’d imagine they still have some left – 40 year old public furniture… Never thought I’d have it in the house!


  2. tom Avatar

    Good to see that his work is being valued again.


  3. Richard Veryard Avatar

    Interested in your comments about the adaptability of a modernist architecture.
    1. Basil Spence is undoubtedly a great architect in many ways, and the Swiss Cottage Library remains beautiful, even if its functionality is now somewhat dated.
    2. Functionalism involves a high degree of adaptation (to a given conception of function/functionality).
    3. Adaptation conflicts with adaptability. The more you optimize to the present, the more you close off alternative futures.
    4. Stewart Brand’s book on How Buildings Learn contains the notion of Shearing Layers – functional layers that have a different natural rate of change. A flexible structure allows each layer to be changed independently. But where the layers are too tightly coupled, the differential rates of change tear the structure apart.
    5. Great buildings should be able to accommodate change, age gracefully. Perhaps one of the errors of modernism was to imagine that change would no longer be necessary.
    6. So what do we make of Adam Brown’s implied criticism of Basil Spence? Is this 20-20 hindsight, or is it simply the response we have come to expect from any workman called upon to maintain an existing artefact. (Think of the tut-tutting of the plumber when faced with another plumber’s pipework.)


  4. Dan Avatar

    Thanks Richard – good comment, much appreciated.
    You’ll find no shortage of discussion RE Brand’s layers here – big fan. Check the adaptive design category for many entries around this …
    And just to clear something up – I couldn’t really describe Brown’s discussion of Spence and Swiss Cottage Library as ‘criticism’, implied or otherwise. He was nothing less than glowing about Spence’s work – and modernism in general. He declared himself, and McAslan & Partners, as modernists and advocates for modern architecture … He did, though, as you point out, describe how difficult it can be to work with older modernist buildings, simply due to the architecture being tied so closely to function. And given function changing over time, that can lead to bits of the building being difficult to work with. I wish he’d said more about it, to be honest (though that’s a personal interest and may not have been of interest to the rest of the room) … He may have simply been talking about how difficult it is to work with older buildings in general (old services, asbestos in ceiling etc.)
    What’s interesting, visiting the building, is that the library still feels very much like a library – as we understood the concept for the last 30 years or so. But gently updated (now has gallery, coffee shop, internet access rooms, DVD lending etc.) but all within that framework. They’ve beautifully balanced the old (which was so well designed that it still feels modern – in both senses of the word – and with real quality build, attention to detail) and the new (the new functions have been incorporated apparently seamlessly).
    Perhaps this indicates the building was open to change after all …


  5. Lucien Smith Avatar
    Lucien Smith

    I am just researching all the web coverage for Open House London weekend and found your website and was pleased to read that you enjoyed the John Mcaslan talk. Really pleased that it has initiated comments on the Swiss Cottage Library which I think is a great building. As you may already know,it is one of ‘Open House’s main objectives to inspire discussion and broaden awareness of the architecture that surrounds us in London.
    I particularly liked your photos and ,if possible, we would love to have copies for our database. When you have a moment please let us know. Many Thanks


  6. Patrick Seow Avatar
    Patrick Seow

    I’m doing some sketches on line. Basically it’s a foundation course work of my architecture course, and i hope to use 1 of the photos of Sir. The photo that i taken to work on my course work is swisscottage_stairs2. Thank you.


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