Thursday, June 26, 2008


Some Machines for Reading In

'Hitler's Headquarters'

What should a library look like? What are its functions, what spaces does it need, and what should it (sigh) symbolise? I'm writing this next to Charles Holden's Senate House. A portland stone skyscraper built in the late 1930s, it is best known as one of those urban-myth 'Hitler's headquarters' (there were a few), and was certainly the inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four's Ministry of Truth. Hearteningly, the actual content of this block is mainly educational, including two floors devoted to the University of London Library, which, if Market Stalinists have their way, will become fee-paying, thus shoving more people into the already cramped British Library up the road. When I was working in there on my MA, I loved the narrow alcoves, the endless Kafka corridors, the strange views - all free, unlike hoity middlebrow antiquarian arsehole-fests like the London Library.

With this building, all Palace of the Soviets/Hugh Ferriss stepping and Novecento bareness, Holden disappointed the Modernist following he'd built up via his fantastic tube stations, and it's a great what-if to imagine a University Tower designed in the same Commuter Belt De Stijl he'd pioneered on the Piccadilly Line - especially considering Arnos Grove was itself based on a famous library building (which I visited once: an oddly ceremonial sachlichkeit there). Senate House's severity still thrills, I must admit - sharp, bracing, its axial symmetries almost hidden in the middle of Russell Square, and annoying Simon Jenkins is another reason to love it. However, the original plan was far more grandiose and, shall we say, total. The picture here shows it as originally intended, a spine all the way along Malet St of Portland stone starkness, massively scaled down just to the tower and smaller wings, with Holden's sadly drab 1940s buildings now scattered around the area. In fact, library buildings seem particularly vulnerable to this kind of penny-pinching, de-scaling and general rancour, as if the very idea of devoting this much money and space to reading is somehow an affront to the economy. The buildings in this post (some of which I have used, some not) are almost all united by lengthy gestation, controversy, changes in design, and most of all squabbles over money.

Libraries Gave Us Power

Perhaps the only one of the grim, cultish memorials to Lenin erected in the Soviet Union that wouldn't have led to old V.I spinning in his grave, was the idea of a vast, free, comprehensive public library in central Moscow, 'named for Lenin'. The plan was first mooted in 1927, becoming a graduation project for students at the 'Soviet Bauhaus', VkHUTEMAS - the reason for Ivan Leonidov's famous proto-Buckminster Fuller dome and bookstack. The 1928 competition was held in two stages. The first, open competition was won by Fidman, Fridman & Markov, architects from the 'Psycho-Technical' ASNOVA Group, an intriguing clique fixated with stimulus-response effects on the building's users. Of the images above, the top one was likely to become the eventual library. It would have been the most technologically and aesthetically advanced building in the world. The jury, headed by 'Commissar of Enlightenment' Anatoly Lunacharsky, specifically criticised those architects 'still practicing in the old styles', which made what happened in the second round especially odd.

The second stage would be distinguished by the Vesnin brothers' cubic designs, shown in the public exhibition of the Leftist Oktyabr Group. Meanwhile, Alexey Shchusev and Vladimir Schukuo, two old Academicians who had entered in neoclassical entries for the first competition, now entered simplified, Modernistic versions of their original designs - leaving actual floor plans entirely intact, of course. Schukuo's entry won the second contest, leading to a united front of Soviet Modernists placing an advert in the architectural press, headed 'PROTEST' featuring a montage of the two old guard architects' designs with the words 'What can we do to oblige, sirs? We are not proud people.' Suggesting that eclectic architects were carrying out the bidding of powerful clients was obviously not terribly clever in a country rapidly veering into dictatorship, and the protests were ignored. Schukuo's building took 12 years to construct, and is still standing, its stripped classical volumes featuring much public sculpture (reading women!) and a statue of Dostoevsky at the entrance, rather incongruously. It seems pleasant in photos, if hardly the earth-shattering futurist monument to socialist learning it so nearly was.

Libraries as Terminals in London, Paris and elsewhere

Colin St John Wilson's British Library, on the face of it, is Guardian Modernism, best fit for visitors to the Hay-on-Wye festival, warm, comforting, uncontroversial, with a proper sense of historical place - replacing the rotunda where Capital was written, itself subsequently emasculated by being encased in Norman Foster's most kitsch, Speerian structure - with Alvar Aalto's ingratiating niceness. It took 30 years between planning and building, and by the time it was finished it appeared as a very late, softcore Brutalism in the midst of pomo, albeit with unusually lavish furnishing and detailing (Wilson had LCC and Independent Group pedigree, though neither the rigour of the first or the pop montage of the latter is immediately apparent). Martin Pawley fairly relishes pointing out, in Terminal Architecture, just how ineffectual the building was as a working space, outsourcing the real activity to depots in Thamesmead and Yorkshire: he recommended it learn the lessons of Cadburys' delivery centres. Nonetheless, after using the library a few times, I started to warm to it. Not for the redbrick 'harmonising' with St Pancras, or for the often overcrowded rooms, but for the ineffectual, functionless, generous spaciousness. In the main reading rooms a vast, airy ceiling provides all the space that is lacking on the ground, while the system of staircases and escalators is elegant, enjoyable and pointless, rightly recognising that a library should not be assessed by economic use-value (although it perhaps offers too much space to the ubiquitous wi-fi wankers). Naturally, as with Senate House, there are proposals to take away its free status.

I haven't been to either of the Paris National Bibliotheques, but I rather admire the fact that the original National Library, itself a pioneering structure (given much attention in Benjamin's Arcades) got replaced with something so fantastically uncompromising, un-user 'friendly' as Mitterand's Dominique Perrault-designed buildings - four glass blocks straight out of Alphaville, with no interest in scale, context or all the other pieties which obsess British architects. These truly look like machines for reading in, and accordingly don't possess the romantic patina that academic labour is apparently supposed to entail - one can't imagine the slightest speck of dust escaping here, no musty volumes or yellowing pages. Perhaps the inverse of this (which I did visit, before being told off) is Joze Plecnik's determinedly romanticist Ljubjiana University library. After going in past the rough, eccentric redbrick facade, you find yourself in a bizarre horror-classical space of black columns and crepuscular spaces. The eventual pay-off is of course a light, airy reading room, but it is the way in that everyone remembers: reading treated with a curious trepidation. The passage through darkness is so much more memorable than arriving in the light.

(Finally, petitions for the British Library and Senate House are here, and here, in lieu of direct anti-philistine action)


Blogger it said...

the very idea of devoting this much money and space to reading is somehow an affront to the economy

Oh but it is. Marx wrote in libraries, donchaknow, and pubs. Both of which are doomed. DOOMED!

7:53 pm  
Anonymous Ray said...

The newer Paris Bibliotheque Nationale, whatever it was supposed to look like when it was put up, is now unpleasantly grubby and beat up on the outside--but it's also, surprisingly, agreeably grubby and beat up on the inside. After a week working in the new British Library, I found the BN was like being in a real library, not a hushed sort of museum. The staff were nice folks too.

1:24 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Owen,
I posted on here before about translating.
Could you please email me at joeltrepp(at)
Will be in London next week for the Marxism festival.

7:31 am  
Anonymous Robert Doyle said...

Just remembered that here is a wonderful section on the inhumanity of the new Bibliotheque Nationale in W G Sebald's Austerlitz.

BTW why did you suppress the original lead picture to this piece - Cartier Bresson's photo (from the People of Moscow?) of a reading room in the Lenin Library dominated by a double portrait of Comrades Lenin and Stalin.

12:18 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

God almighty, you really do check the internet every five seconds, don't you? That was the lead image before I'd even checked the spelling! I just decided that a) I didn't want pics of Stalin all over my blog and b) I wanted an image of the BM reading room. But yes, it was from People of Moscow.

1:58 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

'Suppress'. You know us Marxists, always rewriting history...

1:59 pm  
Blogger SPL said...

Having formerly worked in Bloomsbury I must say that Senate House is probably the best thing in that stuffy antiquted quarter; hideous derams of second rate talents binding together to form a 'group' in which to hide. Thank God for Comrade Senate to liven it up.

5:14 am  
Blogger nnyhav said...


4:14 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...






3:26 am  
Blogger 情趣用品 said...


愛情公寓,情色,舊情人,情色貼圖,情色文學,情色交友,色情聊天室,色情小說,一葉情貼圖片區,情色小說,色情,色情遊戲,情色視訊,情色電影,aio交友愛情館,色情a片,一夜情,辣妹視訊,視訊聊天室,免費視訊聊天,免費視訊,視訊,視訊美女,美女視訊,視訊交友,視訊聊天,免費視訊聊天室,情人視訊網,影音視訊聊天室,視訊交友90739,成人影片,成人交友,美女交友,微風成人,嘟嘟成人網,成人貼圖,成人電影,A片,豆豆聊天室,聊天室,UT聊天室,尋夢園聊天室,男同志聊天室,UT男同志聊天室,聊天室尋夢園,080聊天室,080苗栗人聊天室,6K聊天室,女同志聊天室,小高聊天室,上班族聊天室,080中部人聊天室,同志聊天室,聊天室交友,中部人聊天室,成人聊天室,一夜情聊天室,情色聊天室,寄情築園小遊戲,AV女優,A片下載,免費A片,日本A片,麗的色遊戲,色色網,情色論壇,嘟嘟情人色網,色情網站,成人網站,成人論壇,成人小說,微風成人區,色美媚部落格,正妹牆,正妹百人斬,aio,伊莉,伊莉討論區,成人文章,成人圖片區,免費成人影片,成人遊戲,成人影城,本土自拍,自拍,癡漢俱樂部,AV,做愛,做愛影片,av片,a漫,av dvd,線上a片,日本美女寫真集

7:36 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


7:04 am  
Blogger dinoibo said...

Sesli sohbet Sesli chat
Seslisohbet Seslichat
Sesli sohbet siteleri Sesli chat siteleri
Sesli Chat
Sohbet Sesli siteler
Sohbet siteleri Chat siteleri
Sohbet merkezi chat merkezi
Sesli merkezi sesli Sohbet merkezi
Sesli chat merkezi Sohbetmerkezi
Sesli Sohbet Sesli Chat
SesliSohbet Sesli chat siteleri
Sesli sohbet siteleri SesliChat
Sesli Sesli siteler
Seslimuhabbet sesli muhabbet
sesli sohbet sesli chat siteleri
sesli sohbet siteleri sesli chat
seslisohbet seslichat
seslikent sesli kent
sesli sohbet sesli sohbet siteleri
sesli chat sesli chat siteleri
seslisohbet seslichat

6:39 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here what i found -> vision correction

12:42 pm  
Blogger ekle paylas said...

nice blog Thanks for sharing. voicesohbet was really very nice.
sesli chat siteleri sesli sohbet
sesli sohbet siteleri sesli chat
seslichat seslisohbet
sesli siteleri chat siteleri
sohbet siteleri sesli siteler
voice sohbet sesli sohbet siteleri
sesli sohbet seslisohbet
sohbet siteleri sesli chat siteleri
seslichat sesli chat
herkesburda herkes burda
sohbetmerkezi sohbetmerkezi

11:19 pm  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home