Explore the architecture of this Grade 1 listed building.
Where to start with designing a building set to hold an almost unimaginably large number of books? Not to mention a myriad of stamps, maps, manuscripts, newspapers and sound recordings which also make up our collection.
This was the challenge facing architect Sir Colin St. John Wilson (1922–2007), together with partner MJ Long (1939–2018) and their teams, when tasked with designing the British Library.
The building’s construction – dubbed the ‘30-year war’ – was far from plain sailing.
With a site near the British Museum first approved in 1964, and the existing St Pancras design given the go-ahead in the mid-70s, architects Wilson and Long had to battle against spiralling costs, government changes and funding cuts for over three decades until the building was complete.
Nonetheless the British Library eventually opened in 1998, with Wilson being given a knighthood the same year, and building was awarded its Grade 1 listing in 2015.
Learn more about the history of the British Library.
Architectural style of the British Library
Wilson was a British modernist architect, strongly influenced by Scandinavian design. His heroes were Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund, and if you look at some of their buildings, you may notice similarities with the British Library.
Two particular architectural styles influenced the design of the Library:
The English Free School
While earlier generations of architects had been preoccupied by strict classical symmetries, Wilson was inspired by a group of 19th-century thinkers who saw beauty in irregularity and asymmetry. Architects included Butterfield, Webb, Waterhouse and George Gilbert Scott, and Wilson referred to this group as ‘The English Free School’.
At the same time, Wilson subscribed to the modernist philosophy that the form of a building should reflect its function and the people who use it.
These twin influences can be seen across the British Library in:
- the building’s irregular shape (look at it from the Piazza), which echoes George Gilbert Scott’s St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel next door
- the clocktower (paying homage to WM Dudok's town hall in Hilversum, Netherlands), which is not merely decorative but also a ventilation shaft, serving to air the five levels of basement
- the Reading Rooms, tailored for specific Readers.
Originating in the 20th century and taking influence from Scandinavian architecture, this style responds to the natural world and the surroundings a building is placed in.
See for example the use of natural materials in the Entrance Hall, and the building’s red bricks on the inside and out, which blend in seamlessly with the neighbouring St. Pancras Station and the Renaissance Hotel.
Architects working in this style include Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto and Hans Scharoun.
The British Library as a ship
Prior to becoming an architect, Colin Wilson was a naval lieutenant.
Can you spot the inspiration he took from his days at sea around the building? Scroll through the image carousel above to find the clues.