Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bibbly-O-Tek

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)

14 Comments:

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)hotmail.com?
Will be in London next week for the Marxism festival.
Thanks,
Joel

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.

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