The New Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge
Libraries can be joyous places. The British Library, old and new, the Library of Congress, the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome and the Berkeley Library at Trinity College Dublin have been inspirational places in which to read, reflect and write. Many factors influence the ability to focus productively within a communal study setting including accessibility of material and staff, comfort, light and the quality of space and materials. In my experience the most successful library buildings provide gradations in spatial experience and achieve a balance of communal and private study spaces. Readers differ. Students often prefer to work together while individual scholars range from introvert to extrovert. I have always preferred to burrow into a secluded space undisturbed while colleagues have written monographs to the clatter of bags, books and footfall on library stairs.
As Parnell Fellow of Magdalene College Cambridge in 2021-22, the University of Cambridge and its constituent colleges offered an embarrassment of bibliographic and architectural riches from Wren’s great library at Trinity College, still in use for access to special collections, to Cockerell’s nineteenth-century University Library (now the College Library of Gonville and Caius) and the soaring spaces and labyrinthine bookstacks of the twentieth-century University Library (CUL). College libraries in Cambridge, in terms of collections and buildings, range significantly in scale, ambition and specialisation. Upon arrival in Cambridge, I did not expect to make much use of the New Library at Magdalene College, whose holdings in architectural history are relatively modest.
My sights were set on CUL, the British Library and the National Archives at Kew together with a circuit of regional and country house archives. However, buildings of quality are seductive and increasingly I found myself drawn to the New Library. Formally opened on 2 July 2022 by HRH The Duke of Gloucester, an architect and honorary fellow of Magdalene, the building had been in use by staff and students since the previous year and during the pandemic.
The designation ‘New Library’ contains within it the impetus to the project and the reason why Magdalene, among the smaller of the Cambridge colleges, set itself the task of erecting a building of the first quality. The old library at Magdalene is housed in the famed Pepys Building built from the late seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century, which contains the collection of some 3,000 books and manuscripts bequeathed to the College by its most celebrated alumnus, the diarist and naval administrator, Samuel Pepys (1633-1703).
The Pepys Building dominates Second Court at Magdalene. It stands opposite and is axially related to the Hall and Buttery range which closes Front Court. Finished in pale ashlar masonry it is a picturesque building with emphatic terminal gables framing a five-bay centre with a ground-floor arcade and a pilastered centrepiece. However, though classical in ornament it is traditional in volume and massing, dominated on both fronts by its gables, chimneys and transomed windows. To the rear, facing Fellows’ Garden and visible from the River Cam, its brick facades constitute a significant landmark in the cityscape. In commissioning a new building, the challenge was to ‘follow that’.
Externally, the resulting building, commissioned from Níall McLaughlin Architects, following a limited competition, is a quiet tribute to the Pepys Library while holding its own in form, structure and materials.
In winter, from the walled perimeter of Chesterton Lane, its illuminated gables read as peaks of gold against the night sky. Internally, it responds sensitively to the historic buildings of Magdalene and delivers dynamic variegated volumes and richly textured surfaces.
While the tartan grid of Frank Lloyd Wright and the cream cheese pointed brickwork of Louis Kahn may certainly be cited as exemplars for spatial and material characteristics, these are but echoes in a design which reflects the long hours of silent deliberation and vigorous office debate essential to the effective design and realisation of buildings. Much creative energy was invested in the brickwork with mock-ups provided by contractors and close comparison to the brick rear and side elevations of the Pepys Building.
Arriving in Cambridge during the pandemic after 18 months of remote working was initially an arresting experience. Finding in the New Library ventilating panels flanking secluded desks and expansive, ventilated desks with spectacular views to Second Court in earshot of the distinctive Magdalene College clock chimes was a source of comfort and pleasure.
The quality of the craftsmanship in brick, timber and lettered stone in the Library prompted the addition of a plaque commemorating those who constructed and completed the building, inscribed ‘Faber Sum’: I am the maker or craftsman.
If the vigorously textured bricks of the interior walls could produce spalling by accidental rubbing against man-made clothing materials, that was a small price to pay for the experience of a building which so effectively embodies the Vitruvian triad: commodity, firmess and delight. No wonder that it has been nominated for the most prestigious prize in British architecture. Bonne chance!