If an architect and a writer came together for coffee, the British Library would probably be mentioned once or twice. The first one will appreciate the building, the second will cherish its contents. And if the architect and the writer happen to be the same person, the British Library should feel very special.
Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to guide a group of French architects around London (lucky wasn’t the term I used during the tour itself but hindsight makes you wiser). The British Library is in a fascinating neighbourhood, especially for architects. There is the Victorian façade of the Saint Pancras Renaissance hotel and the St Pancras station itself. There is Kings Cross with its great, big square and imposing concourse. And further up by the canal, there is also the restored Granary building (it once stored wheat for London’s bakers) at the Central St Martins art college.
The architect in me struggles to pick a winner. I do have a soft spot for Central St Martins and I’m eager to see the new Francis Crick institute open in 2016, just across the road from St Pancras International. I am also left speechless every time I see Gilbert Scott’s Grand Staircase inside the Renaissance Hotel – the presence of a grand piano available for everyone to play does help too.
The writer in me is less torn : the British Library wins the day.
Did you know?
- The British Library is the biggest library in the world, in terms of number of items : there are 170 million items, 14 million of which are books. (the biggest in terms of space is the American Library of Congress).
- It has 300 km worth of shelving.
- The shape of the building was designed to resemble that of a ship sailing into London.
- The architect – Colin St John Wilson – liked “inside-out” buildings. Or in the words of British biographer and cultural historian Fiona MacCarthy: “calm outside but revealing unexpected splendours” inside. Those interested can read an interesting article on the subject here.
- Since the construction of St Paul (400 years earlier), no other building took this long to be built – from 1962 to 1998, that being 36 years!
- The architect – Colin St John Wilson – refers to it as his “30 year war”.
- The building was not spared any critiques : Prince Charles has described it “more like the assembly hall of an academy for secret police”.
- It was Grade I listed on August 1, 2015 (the day of the first annual Blogger’s Bash – coincidence? I think not)
- It has 11 Reading Rooms, some of which are 5 storeys high.
When I first discovered the Reading Rooms, I knew I had just discovered my own refuge in London. In Sofia, this sheltered place was my piano. In Brighton, it was the end of the undercliff walk, near Saltdean. It was the place I would escape to after an atmospheric ride, cliffs on one side, the open sea on the other.
It took me 2 years to find my refuge here in London. 2 years of intense search for something I couldn’t find. I have no piano here, there are no cliffs or cycling paths to my taste and the parks just won’t do. But I now realise I was looking in all the wrong places. My new refuge didn’t have to be in line with the old ones. It is in fact radically different and all the more comforting.
The British Library is exactly what I have been looking for. While the evening rides to Saltdean were inspiring in a spiritual way, the library is inspiring in a factual way. And although I would rather have both, my novel is definitely benefiting more from the second one.
Do you have a favourite spot in your city? A go-to place when you need inspiration, quietude or just a change of scenery?