Architects have poured scorn over Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners’ controversial designs for a major extension to the grade I-listed British Library – with one likening it to an “acoustic cover version of a high-tech power ballad”.
Plans for the scheme, which are due to be lodged with Camden council in May, will see a huge block at least 11 storeys built next to and partially attached to the landmark existing building at St Pancras which opened in 1997 after two decades of struggle and listed in 2015. It will include 72,000sq m of office space, 10,000sq m of library facilities and new premises for the Alan Turing Institute.
But its scale and proximity to Colin St John “Sandy” Wilson and MJ Long’s seminal library complex have ruffled many architects’ feathers, with Patrick Lynch, director of Lynch Architects, calling the designs “bloody awful”.
He added: “Just as depressing as the endless Queen/Marilion-with-Brian-from-Down-the-Pub-on-vocals world tours designed only to make money, the ongoing zombification of British architecture continues with RSHP’s cover version of a high-tech power ballad done in a vaguely acoustic set kind of a way.”
It is a metaphor almost as striking as Prince Charles’ memorable description of the library itself soon after it opened as “more like the assembly hall of an academy for secret police”.
Lynch, who got to know the building intimately while working on his PhD there and who remains a member, said: “It’s the setting of a listed building, but exactly like their recent addition to the British Museum, the architects’ only tactic is to stand too close by, saying almost nothing, in an aggressive and yet also oddly passive fashion.
“The critic in me is bored by this unimaginative office-slab response; and the architect is enraged: how has such a fantastic opportunity ended up with such a bloody awful, third-rate wedge of nothing, with a sort of a kink at the end?”
His views are echoed by others in the profession. One architect and professor of architectural history, who asked not to be named, said that the proposals “shoehorned” the building on to its plot in a way that was ”both out of scale and too large for the site”.
Unlike HOK and PLP’s neighbouring Francis Crick Insitute, which he said referenced the nearby St Pancras and King’s Cross stations, RSHP’s scheme responded ”neither to the nearby railway architecture nor the fragmentary yet hardly diminutive forms of Wilson’s British Library or the LCC’s Ossulton Estate opposite”.
He added: “A response to context is, of course, not the only approach to take, but to shoehorn such a large building on to a relatively small site is not the one to take either.”
The project, which is being led by a JV between developers Stanhope and Mitsui Fudosan, will require the demolition of buildings to the north of the library, including the 2007 British Library Centre for Conservation (BLCC). Designed by Long & Kentish, the practice co-founded by Wilson’s partner MJ Long, the BLCC had been earmarked as a temporary construction compound for the mothballed Crossrail 2 project.
The developers have secured the site by agreeing a deal with Transport for London which will see them carry out the work to build shafts and passageways beneath RSHP’s extension if the railway scheme is revived.
>> From the archive: At home with MJ Long and Sandy Wilson
>> Also read: Colin Wilson’s other library is listed
The loss of the BLCC has provoked the ire of modernist architecture heritage organisation Docomomo UK, with a spokesperson calling the plans ”damaging”.
”This new extension is not of the site-specific or subservient quality demanded by the setting to the rear of a grade I-listed building,” they added.
”The paradoxical loss of the MJ Long and Rolfe Kentish British Library conservation building – one which shows how to sensitively add to the estate without upsetting the innate qualities of the library building – only serves to make this addition less fitting.
”Docomomo opposes these damaging plans which illustrate once again that, despite a high grade of listing, 20th-century buildings are yet to achieve conservation parity with architecture of earlier periods.”
The Twentieth Century Society has also thrown its weight behind objectors, with caseworker Coco Whittaker calling the BLCC an “integral” part of the library.
The project team for the extension includes planning consultant Gerald Eve, heritage consultant Cordula Zeidler and design consultant Tavernor Consultancy.