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A library building for the future at Lambeth, rooted in the past

26 May 2017

Clare Wright of Wright & Wright, winners of the architectural competition to design the new library at Lambeth Palace, explains the factors that shaped the chosen design

Picture Plane

Place of reflection: the Library development will include new landscaping and an enlarged pond by Dan Pearson

Place of reflection: the Library development will include new landscaping and an enlarged pond by Dan Pearson

EMBLEMATIC of the historic re­­lationship between Church and State, Lambeth Palace Library is an unrivalled corpus of precious books, manuscripts, and artefacts that have illuminated ecclesiastical and cultural life for nearly a millen­nium.

Founded in 1610 by the will of Archbishop Richard Bancroft, it is one of the earliest public libraries in England. Its treasures include the 12th-century Lambeth Bible; the prayer book of Elizabeth I; the Guten­­berg Bible of 1455; and — the oldest artefact — the MacDurnan Gospels, a pocket-sized book pro­duced in Ireland in the ninth century.

These are but a few examples to demonstrate the breadth of material held, which records the rich history of the Church up to the current day, including the part that it has played in the life of our nation.

The library’s public character survives in its enlightened approach to disseminating its collections to both scholars and lay people. It has long been acknowledged, however, that current archival and access arrangements, which involve divid­ing the collection between Lambeth Palace and a site in Bermondsey, need to be updated. Paradoxically, storage arrangements within the palace buildings have led to the books’ damaging the buildings, and vice versa.

Designs for the new building, situated in the garden of Lambeth Palace (News, 5 May), seek to pre­serve and protect the precious collection for the current era and beyond. Yet it is more than just bricks and mortar: it underlines the Church of England’s wider intel­lectual and evangelical purpose as it modernises and affirms its place in society. Moving the collection to a new home in turn frees up historic buildings for more appropriate purposes, and will allow rational­isa­tion of the spaces within Lambeth Palace.


LAMBETH PALACE is a site of supreme importance, powerfully evocative of some of the people and events that have shaped the nation’s identity. The new library is the latest element in its development, grounded in history but also repre­senting the collection’s future, and how it can be made to live more vividly in the minds of the public. In adding to a complex historic en­­semble of buildings, an aim of the new library is to cultivate a distinct urban presence that helps to uplift the rather bleak immediate sur­round­­ings.

Located at the furthest end of the garden from the palace, with a footprint of only three per cent of the garden, the intention is that the building should have minimal impact on the existing mature landscape.

Picture PlaneAn aerial image showing the proposed new library building amongst the ground of Lambeth PalaceEvolved over centuries, the garden was laid to waste during the Second World War, and was largely un­­attended until taken over in the mid-1980s by Rosalind Runcie, the wife of the Archbishop, who imple­mented a successful program­me of planting and restoration. The land­scape designer Dan Pearson will build on this to evoke a verdant, naturalistic setting for the enjoyment of those who live and work in the palace now, and those who will come with the new building.

Conceived as an “occupied wall”, the library gradually steps up along the perimeter of the site. Its presence is heralded by a new tower that has vistas that extend across the River Thames to the Palace of West­minster. Adding to the lineage of towers in the vicinity — including those of Lambeth Palace itself, and St Mary’s (now the Garden Museum) next door — this crowning element is a dramatic urban eyrie that will contain a seminar room and terrace, which will be used for teaching and, on occasion, public viewing.

This view of the palaces of Lambeth and Westminster is being created to highlight the historic rela­tionship between Church and State, and the important part that the Church has played in political battles over the centuries. The new tower also establishes the building as a con­temporary landmark: a literal and metaphorical beacon in the city.


THE library’s architectural char­acter is determined by the im­per­ative to protect and pre­serve its priceless contents. Con­ceived as “a box within a box”, the archives are encased in a succession of pro­tective layers designed to ensure the security and integrity of the collection in perpetuity. This re­­sults in a build­ing with thick walls and a deeply mo­­delled façade (as op­­posed to a thin skin of glass or metal).

Brick and stone have an obvious historic resonance, as they are one of the oldest forms of construction, and have an especially rich lineage in Lon­­don. Unlike some other ma­­terials, masonry endures for cent­uries, subtly transmuted rather than diminished with the patina of age. This is important, as the library will be built to last. More pragmatically, it will also result in low maintenance costs.

The handmade bricks that have been chosen provide variations in hue and texture, which can create the almost tweed-like visual palette often seen in historic brickwork. The walls are deep (for environmental reasons), and will give the building a sculpted depth and weighty appearance, out­side and in.

Picture PlanePortal of knowledge: the entrance, with glimpses of the garden beyondThe rich red brick that will be used for the new library picks up on historic cues, such as the existing perimeter wall and 15th-century Morton’s Tower (which forms the palace’s gatehouse). The aim is to have a new building that fits into its historic setting as part of a contin­uum — as others have for centuries past.

Within the garden setting, the brick façades will be animated by the play of shadows from the surround­ing trees and foliage, as well as reflec­tions off the pond, with the aim of bringing the building to life through nature.


IN THE same way as Morton’s Tower has been the portal through which everyone passed to enter Lambeth Palace, the new library will form a public portal to places of study. Crossing the threshold, the visitor will pass from the noise and turmoil of heavy traffic on a London street to a place of tran­quillity, overlooking a garden. The entrance hall, fitted out with display cases and interactive screens, will play an important part in making both the workings of the building and the riches of the collection easily accessible to a wide audience.

Great care will be taken outside with the public realm. On Lambeth Palace Road, there will be carefully detailed York paving, places for bikes, and provision for the disabled, as well as some imagery of the collection, to illustrate to the public the richness and diversity of the collections held within.

From the road, passers-by will have glimpses of the garden, to lift their spirits and to convey a sense of the different world just a few footsteps away. Once inside, the symmetry of the entrance space is focused on the garden, and there will be adequate space and seating to allow visitors to get their bearings. Many visitors will be seasoned scholars, destined for the reading room, but others may simply be curious about the building and its function. In the entrance hall, they will be able to learn about the library and its collections.


AS IN many churches, the entrance hall is defined by its structure, which carries the heavy load of the collection above. The simplest functional form for this was found to be very large beams in the shape of a cross, which — literally, as well as metaphorically — carry the weight of the collection above.

Display cases embedded in the structure will tell the stories of the library, in a space with modulated light to protect the sensitive material being shown. At times, the ambience of the hall will also be animated by the sun reflecting off the surface of a moat-like pond immediately outside: a reminder of the gift of creation.

In the tradition of the monastic library as a scholarly refuge and re­­pository of intellectual culture, the read­­ing room is a set-piece space that anchors the building. Ex­­tending in a long wing overlooking the end of Lambeth Palace garden, it is conceived as a timber-lined, hu­­manly scaled enclave, conducive to study and contemplation.

As in the entrance hall, the garden, with its mature trees, will form a tranquil backdrop to the reading room. While the room itself will benefit from that aspect, the design is arranged so that the privacy of those who live and work at the palace is protected. Large areas of glazing are confined to the end wall of the reading room, overlooking a glade of trees.

A.P.S (UK)/AlamyChurch and State: aerial view of Lambeth Palace (bottom left) with its gardens and adjacent public park, and St Thomas’ Hospital, facing the Houses of Parliament;Within the garden, the enlarged pond extends almost to the edge of the building, like a protective moat with a walkway running around its edge. In certain conditions, light will catch the surface of the water and be re­­flected back into the building, al­­though the form and proportions of the windows are designed to limit direct sunlight, which could damage the collection.

Inside the reading room, simple, robust furniture and fittings will be designed specifically for the space as an integral part of the building: timbers will be chosen for their religious significance. But poetry will be tempered by pragmatism. Internal organisation and desk layouts are designed to allow efficient but un­­obtru­sive supervision of visitors — an unfortunate but essential pre­caution, given the significance of the Lambeth Palace collection.


IN THE context of this site, which houses books and buildings that date back almost a millennium, our aim has been to design a building that will endure. But we have also been mindful of the responsibility to conserve the planet’s resources long-term. In practical terms, the building is a highly efficient mechanism of protec­tion and preservation, con­form­­ing to exacting technical speci­fica­­tions, with negligible consump­­tion of energy, combined with on-site generation of energy from the sun and air. It is hoped that it will also be a building of architectural quality.


THIS development provides a unique opportunity to reveal to a wide audience the extraordin­ary social, spiritual, intellectual, and visual riches of this wonderful collection. As attitudes to the cultivation of knowledge change in the information age, public engagement at all levels will be an important challenge for the Library, especially the emphasis on the continuing part that the Church plays in cultural, social, and intel­­lectual life.

From serious scholars in the reading room to the casual passer-by attracted by the objects on display or the tower view, the new building must appeal to different constitu­encies. Scholar and skimmer must be made equally welcome, with spaces and experiences to stimulate the mind and delight the eye. In effect, the building’s contents become part of its architecture, as both are derived from the idea that culture can and should transcend time.


Planning permission for the new building was granted in April and construction will start in early 2018, and public opening is expected in 2020. The design for the Library was awarded Best Project in the Old and New Category in this year’s Architec­tural Review Future Project Awards; and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) has cited it as an exemplar of a sensitive new building in a historic environment.

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