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Stirling prize: why Cambridge's Magdalene library was named the UK's best new building

Each year the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) awards its Stirling Prize to one of the UK’s best new buildings. For its 26th year, the prize in 2022 was awarded to the Irish architect Niall McLaughlin, for the new library he designed for Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge.

A beautifully crafted building, McLaughlin’s library is a large box of books and the space in which to study them. But in housing an archive, a social space and a gallery, the building has a remit that is more expansive. With imagination, at the right moment, it has the potential to sing.

Set against the backdrop of the college garden, the natural materials (brick and wood) used throughout and the masterful way daylight has been introduced within its spaces evoke long-standing traditions of research. The award citation has duly acknowledged the building’s sensitive engagement with place and impressive sustainability credentials.

Contrary to, say, the urban-techno vision of other contemporary libraries, including Seattle Central Library designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture and Seattle-based LMN Architects, McLaughlin’s design aspires to timelessness.

Architecture of line

McLaughlin has described the library as a “thicket of books”. This chimes with what research has described as McLaughlin’s “architecture of line”, wherein repeated linear forms are often worked into lattices or arrays.

The edifice stands beside the wide lawns of a large informal garden, graced by mature trees in central Cambridge. It features a rhythmical array of chimneys between square towers topped by roof lanterns. The towers at each corner are simple planar forms that give the box its solidity. Those between carry more complex, projecting timber windows that animate the south, east and west facades.

When it comes to designing for Oxford and Cambridge universities, McLaughlin’s firm has form. It has had 15 commissions from various colleges in total, including a chapel, an auditorium and award-winning student accomodation.

This familiarity with the requirements of these historical places of study is on display in how the entrance to the Magdalene library is a discreet side entrance, a common mode of entry in older colleges. It is a judicious choice, in that it makes the building more approachable for daily use and less of a grand monument to learning.

The entrance hall within separates the building’s potentially noisier spaces –- its gallery and social space –- from the library itself. If study-bound, you must slip sideways again, to the left, where you encounter the capacious librarian’s desk.

The initial reading room is tall with a triple-height ceiling, meaning that as soon as you enter it, you can see all the way up to the roof. Natural light floods in through a large, deeply framed window to the west. A set of naturally lit reading rooms then daringly climbs the building. The effect is not unlike that of the Dutch graphic artist MC Escher’s work.

This complex tartan-grid arrangement of spaces allows readers to have access to the time of day – and view to the outside – that a window offers, whether it is close by or distant, deeply embrasured or a picture window. As a result, the library is afforded a general feeling of openness.

Where light and detail meet

As I have shown in my book, The Architecture of Light, in a library, a strong understanding of solar geometry and the prevailing climate of light needs to be married to an awareness of readers’ varying needs for casual, focused and more distracted seeing.

Here, everywhere you look, the balance of enclosure and exposure is carefully handled to maintain a general openness while allowing certain areas to be more hidden away and others to have good access to natural light. Sunlight does enter in places, particularly on the top floor, either falling where no reader could sit or controlled through shutters or blinds. The glow on the upper timber surfaces enriches the user’s experience of the space.

McLaughlin’s attention to daylight brings to mind the UK Arts and Crafts movement and work by architects including Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Philip Speakman Webb and Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, which displays a similar focus on detailing and daylighting.

The windows vary in scale and form, depending on the facades they articulate, the needs of the interiors to which they give a view and the exteriors they observe. In this way, McLaughlin’s building is not closed off from its neighbours but in conversation with them.

Magdalene College began life in the early 15th century and has been accommodating academic study on its riverside site for almost 600 years. McLaughlin’s addition has been designed to last 400 years more. This represents a welcome counterpoint to the poverty of short-term thinking on which so much contemporary construction is predicated.

The library aspires to timelessness through laudably resilient construction as well as an internal consistency of design, as if to imply a monument, or a temple like the Parthenon.

The significance of a library to a college can, of course, only be metaphorically sacred. But perhaps Magdalene felt the need to endow the building with an institutional dignity in order to assert a continuity of values in the face of historical change.

The Conversation

Mary Ann Steane received funding around twelve years ago from the AHRC for a research project 'Designing with light in Libraries' with a colleague at the University of Cambridge, Professor Koen Steemers.

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