A different reading

After its £40m refurbishment by Ryder Architects, Manchester Library works much better, but an injection of arrogance could have added some presence

Through the oculus, crowns and centre of the reading room issue desks, to the roof of the Great Hall.
Through the oculus, crowns and centre of the reading room issue desks, to the roof of the Great Hall.

Emanuel Vincent Harris, architect of the 1930s Manchester Central Library, was a showman. His set piece circular library seems far bigger than it is, a wedding cake roof hiding the real reading room dome, plentiful pillars giving no hint of the modern steel structure working hard inside, its inches-deep Portland stone and oak implying something more solid. 

That hasn’t made the library any less cherished. It is Grade II* listed and was the third busiest library in the country even before refurbishment. Despite a cramped introduction to the building, the reading room of the Great Hall on the upper levels was always a wonderful discovery. But some quirks of Harris’s design did seriously limit how the library was used. In common with others of the time its floors were held up by the bookshelves themselves, giving little flexibility in shelf positioning. Not only do people expect direct access to books now, even more so since self check in, but the book stacks meant that only 30% of the floor space was accessible to the public. It also made awkward demands of circulation: readers had to go up to the first floor reading room to order a book and then librarians descend to the two floors below to get it. Not only did readers have to use the stairs: symmetry meant one staircase was never enough, there had to be two.

Gold leaf and Portland stone lead to the glass and steel of the vertical circulation core.
Gold leaf and Portland stone lead to the glass and steel of the vertical circulation core.

In Ryder’s £40m reconfiguration of the ­library air rather than books move through the central void from the newly public ground floor. The two major moves that have allowed this change – and the opening up of around 70% of the library – have effectively gutted the building: removing the book stacks and floors and inserting new vertical circulation. It seems radical for a sound building but for the project team and English Heritage, it was an effective way to ensure that the library continued in its original use.

All but one tiny quadrant of the book stacks were removed, along with all the inner circle of floors – which could not exist without them. This has allowed the ground floor to become a true entrance to the ­library. Through the historic arches it welcomes visitors with plethora of choices: café, exhibition, film booths and local studies and family history library. To the first time visitor, the absence of a central desk or any obvious route can seem a bit bemusing, but staff are on hand at the door to welcome and direct people. The open plan form for most of the ground floor seems natural and having the café at its centre was deliberate. But the overspill of a café atmosphere and oversized screens of the exhibition conspire to make this noisy, visually busy and far from simple to navigate for those wishing to go beyond the café. Once settled, however, each element of the ground floor – from the furniture of the café to the self-contained film booths, to the radial ceiling servicing – is well appointed.

Ceiling of the grand entrance space of the Shakespeare Hall. The floor plane has been cleared of anything but a few helpers to guide visitors in the right direction.
Ceiling of the grand entrance space of the Shakespeare Hall. The floor plane has been cleared of anything but a few helpers to guide visitors in the right direction.

The second major move is the new vertical circulation. This is more visually radical but follows the well-worn modern lexicon of glazed insertions defining themselves very differently to the historic structure. The new lifts and stairs were essential to unlocking the project which goes beyond the 1934 library building into the Town Hall Extension, also designed by Harris and curving protectively around the library. The lifts connect directly down to the crux between the buildings. Here the library continues at basement level and a customer service centre above pulls together council services in what has been seen as the ideal delivery (and property rationalisation) model in recent years. The Town Hall Extension is being reworked by Ian Simpson Architects, as is the covered link at ground level which traverses the historic cut-through between buildings and has been much debated. The link’s beautiful stainless steel soffit is unlikely to compensate for the loss of truly public access, but it helps the council bring together its services.

Around the outside layers of the plan are other specialist libraries – a music library, business library and so on. On the ground floor at the front they are stone panelled, at the back timber-lined, each with a certain character of its own. Historic panelled rooms, the office of the chief librarian for example, have been converted into lettable meeting rooms and tiny offices brought back into use as study carrels for hire. Offices upstairs allow for some of the back of house library functions, cataloguing and archive work on sensitive material, including film, which is now kept in the basement store. 

Oculus from ground floor mezzanine, with some light making its way through the vertical circulation core to the left.
Oculus from ground floor mezzanine, with some light making its way through the vertical circulation core to the left.

But all these workaday elements – including archive storage – pale into insignificance beside the beautiful, restored reading room. Here the sound levels drop and a studious atmosphere seems naturally to assert itself. The magnificent dome has had the 1960s ­asbestos scraped off and been acoustically relined but is still quite live – careful what you whisper. It is hard to believe that the whole floor has been completely rebuilt and lined with modern servicing, ICT and power. Because, like many of the great reading rooms, reading is not that apparent in here. The bound books lining the walls are dressing for the calmest place to open up your laptop. 

Among the restored furniture is the ring-shaped central issue desk, which was vinyl­topped for many years. This piece is at the centre of this project, but is easy to overlook until you reach this level. It links ground floor café and first floor reading room, creating an air path between the two, which continues up through the grilles at the top of the dome. The spiral staircase descending from the issue desk was removed and replaced with a ring of glass (sections on actuators, ready to open if needed). Inside that is an attenuated circular construction, referred to during building as the ‘oculus’ but resembling a crown, or a series of crowns because above it in the reading room is more original joinery, four scagliola columns and an ironmongery confection reputedly donated by Harris from a well head in Italy. 

The detail of the crown is a testament to the collaborative process of design and build that saw the professional and contractor teams co-located down the road in Manchester – with two Ryder teams, one acting for the client, one novated to the contractor. But that detail also reveals a lack of design vision – the arrogance that can make a building great and something that Vincent Harris had in spades. On the ground floor the historic fabric, furniture and fittings give this building its sense of quality. The impressive crown is now obscured by an interactive LED display, the grand connecting view up through it to the reading room is unlikely to be noticed due to a chunkily-designed piece of exhibition paraphernalia below it. With more space, and more of the arrogance of Harris, this ground floor could have been something special too.

Credits

Client Manchester City Council
Architect Ryder Architecture
Contractor Laing O’Rourke
M&E service NG Bailey
Structural engineer URS
M&E engineer BDP
Heritage advisory HOK
Cost consultant Davis Langdon

Suppliers

Furniture Vitra, Rackline, Naughtone, Fritz Hansen, Hitch / Mylius, Sixteen 3, Gubi, Bisley, Randers, Deadgood, Orangebox, Lammhults, Gariff Construction
Flooring RSL, Burlington, Milliken, Forbo, Domus, Vetter, Bolon, Brintons, Kingspan – Raised Access
Lighting Concord, Chelsom, Jasper Morrison, Tom Dixon, Artemide, Muuto
Ceilings SCS Knauf, Burgess, Oscar Acoustics
Moveable walls Dorma, Style Partitions
Scagliola The Scagliola Company
Glazed screens Komfort
Sanitary Armitage Shanks, Twyford, Lovair
Ironmongery Laidlaw
Doors TDSL
Lifts Ansa
Specialist paint TOR Coatings
Stair fabrication Shawton Engineering
Signage Rivermeade
Stage lighting Northern Stage
Stained glass Recclesia