September 21st, 2007
This is the full version of a letter published in the Architects’ Journal (AJ) on Wednesday:
Letter to the Editor
I write as one bereaved. The privilege of pursuing scholarly activities in the John Rylands Library used to be one of the delights of being a citizen of Manchester. Lloyd Evans Pritchard’s refurbishment of the original building has revived the fabric, but the new planning arrangements introduced with the latest ill-advised extension suck the life out of Champneys’ building. New visitors are robbed of the original entry sequence and the full drama of the ascent to the splendid reading room. Throughout this spatial and constructional masterpiece, Champneys’ purpose designed furniture stands idle, mourners at the new visitor centre experience to which their home has been reduced.
While many may mistake the building’s Deansgate frontage for a church, they all recognise that it is a building of significance and quality. The new entrance suggests nothing more than yet another banal retail space, perhaps a failing department store. The formica-effect panelling which clads the archive perhaps indicates a kitchen showroom? The ground floor of the library is, indeed, a retail space, with souvenir shop and café (in a city already awash with cappuccino!), the latter animated by its cheek-by-jowl juxtaposition with the entrance to the new magistrates’ court. Perhaps this represents a further attempt at outreach - (an asbo might include a compulsory session reading medieval manuscripts?) - or is its just a by-product of the vagaries of contemporary masterplanning.
Retreating from the goldfish bowl exposure of this space, the visitor reaches the atrium for the new vertical circulation which at least has some generosity about it, although the decision to cover the rear of the original building with a white wall with deep reveals seems a lost opportunity to explore the construction. Now serving as internal windows, no direct sunlight will play across the windows in this surface, blank eyes behind the hollow mask. Unfortunately the multiple levels of the atrium also affords the opportunity to observe furthers infelicities in detail, where the soffit of the staircases went unconsidered, where wire mesh provides unconvincing closure at the base of the glazed top floor, and – outside – where an upstand to the paving that edges the original building provides a convenient place for cigarette butts.
The dire situation of this ensemble has two consolations. The first is that the construction of a neighbouring commercial development (offcuts from Libeskind’s aborted spiral extension at the V & A?) will do much to obscure the extension, although rather perversely it will perhaps also make the new entrance to the library even harder to identify. And secondly, as is evidenced by the Quay Bar’s impending demise (described on pages 12 and 13 of the same issue) one can be fairly confident that, given the short lifespan of the previous addition, the new extension to the library will soon meet the same fate. Manchester’s genius loci can be alarmingly unsentimental!