But where’s the brutalism?

What would Philip Larkin have made of Sheppard Robson’s makeover of his library at the University of Hull? It steers a course between traditionalism and brutalism

The crinkle-cut 1969 library by  Castle Park Dean Hook rises above its new plinth building by Sheppard Robson.
The crinkle-cut 1969 library by Castle Park Dean Hook rises above its new plinth building by Sheppard Robson. · Credit: Hufton & Crow

Hull University, and especially its library, has one invaluable selling point: its link with Philip Larkin, the greatest poet of the post-war years. Larkin was not only the university librarian for 30 years from 1955, but he was the intensively involved client who built three phases of the library buildings there. One was a traditionalist design by Forsyth and Partners that he inherited on taking over the job and his influence was confined mostly to the interiors. Far larger, a decade later, was a stubby crinkle-cut brutalist tower by the now-forgotten practice of Castle Park Dean Hook, protegée of the university’s masterplanner, Sir Leslie Martin. It also contributed a good-mannered brick northern extension, the third of Larkin’s projects, to the older building. This linked cluster has now had such a thorough makeover by Sheppard Robson that it amounts to a completely new cultural heart for the university campus.

Larkin would recognise the buildings still: but for the most part not the interiors, which appear to have been comprehensively trashed in various piecemeal alterations made after his death in 1985. In his time, university libraries were all about silent, concentrated, book-based study. Today they work in various different ways, with the printed page in sharp decline relative to electronic working – often in groups. The blurring of the boundary between formal and informal is the key change.

In one of the many letters he wrote to friends about the effort of building his first library, Larkin commented with characteristic self-deprecation: ‘The building is nearly finished and can be seen for what it is – the ideal setting for an exhibition of decadent bourgeois art. Some bits are awful: others are not bad… it is a clumsy, rather graceless building, lacking intelligence at all levels, but not without a certain needless opulence in parts.’

  • Larkin’s self portrait on the site of his first new library at Hull in the late 1950s.
    Larkin’s self portrait on the site of his first new library at Hull in the late 1950s.
  • Not without a certain needless opulence’: the original 1959 library had a  pre-war feel.
    Not without a certain needless opulence’: the original 1959 library had a pre-war feel.
  • In the later  library, Sheppard Robson has revealed  the cruciform slab structure and cut  an aperture in  between floors.
    In the later library, Sheppard Robson has revealed the cruciform slab structure and cut an aperture in between floors. · Credit: Hufton & Crow

That opulence, if such it was, is no longer needless. Larkin’s own preference was for a domestic-feeling library environment and today’s version takes that idea and runs with it. He was prescient in another way. The ground floor of that first library building has now been converted into a well-proportioned, climate controlled art gallery: the permanent university collection one side, temporary exhibitions the other. Decadent bourgeois art? If only he were here to comment. Anyway, the opening exhibition is of the history of the library itself, majoring on his own part in it.

The first library certainly has some opulent cinema-style bronze-and-pearlescent-glass light fittings, remade from photographs and drawings as the originals had been skipped in the 1980s when it was turned into a teacher training centre. Meanwhile the time-expired timber mullions and transoms to the large windows of this block have been replaced in replica, though clear coated internally rather than painted as before. Blinds need to be lowered most of the time – nobody would design a new art gallery with such huge windows.

Up in the observatory: a world of long views and comfy chairs.
Up in the observatory: a world of long views and comfy chairs. · Credit: Hufton & Crow

Part of the problem with the complex (another was worn-out services) was that Larkin’s architect never made enough of the entrance hinge-point between the first and second libraries: it was a confined, tunnel-like space. And it provided only one entrance to both, from the east. This was because the library was on the edge of the then campus. Since then the university has expanded all round it. So Sheppard Robson has re-oriented the complex and broadened the link to make the ground level to both feel as one. The eastern entrance remains – it is off the university’s central pedestrian spine – but is now complemented by a busier southern entrance into a new podium wrapping round the tower.

The original tower jettied out in its upper levels, with a narrower shaft descending to an externally inaccessible plinth with projecting dark red-tiled wings to south and west implying a cruciform base to what is a cruciform-grid building. Those projections have gone, and the architecture is the poorer for it. The new podium structure is square in plan, offset relative to the tower, and of trabeated brick construction lined up with the cornice level of the 1959 brick library building alongside. 

Fine, but this means not enough air is left between the top of the new podium and the underside of the untouched original upper storeys (clad in horizontally folded bands of tile and painted cement board, possibly a unique combination) to keep the original cinched-waist character of the tower. It now looks as if it is wearing a bustle. It may work much better internally now, but it has lost a deal of brutalist character.

The ground floor of the first (east) library is now the university’s art gallery, designed to museum standards.
The ground floor of the first (east) library is now the university’s art gallery, designed to museum standards. · Credit: Hufton & Crow

A tall arcade shelters the southern entrance which leads into a double-height café, thence to the central circulation space of the library including a big new staircase inserted into what was previously an open cleft between the two buildings. Many subsidiary staircases have been removed in a quest for more space and clarity of circulation: staff used to be virtually segregated from library users (Larkin valued his privacy greatly) but now they mingle.

This has meant losing some of the remaining architectural character of the interior, especially in the older part: that is balanced to an extent by the restoration of the vertical view to the glass-block roof at the hinge-point, with one original and one replica circular gallery to the floors above. Overall, more space is made by the removal of about 25% of the less-used shelf stock, mostly journals that also exist in electronic form. Two new bridge links are made between the libraries at upper floors, though the floors in the old East Library had to be raised to reduce the required slope.

The present librarian, Richard Heseltine – client for this £28m project, of which the building work amounted to £19.4m – explains how important the ‘new’ library is for impressing prospective students and their parents. We’re sitting on the top floor of the tower, now named The Observatory, looking out across the surprisingly leafy city, the Humber Bridge in the distance. It’s a world of comfy chairs up there, with a deliberately slightly retro feel. At the centre of the plan, secure in a glass room, is a selection from the university’s rare books collection, but you are immediately drawn to the edges. The original strip windows are angled downwards to reduce daylight glare, making you feel as if you’re on the bridge of a ship – a Hull trawler, perhaps.

‘It’s all about breaking down some of the preconceptions about the city,’ Heseltine observes. From up there, you can see that this Cottingham campus, though far from central, is part of the city rather than – as with many other newer universities – isolated. The library itself is designed to impress, and students were consulted extensively about the changes made. Hull as a city, being out on an eastern limb (this is why Larkin liked it) has to work hard to attract people, which is why gaining the accolade of the 2017 City of Culture is so important. But perhaps the most impressive thing about the whole enterprise is this: in what is still only a modestly-expanded envelope to the complex as Larkin left it, buildings that in 1970 served 4,000 students now serve more than 15,000.

 

  • In what was previously outdoor space, the library acquires a new stair clad in dark zinc.
    In what was previously outdoor space, the library acquires a new stair clad in dark zinc. · Credit: Hufton & Crow
  • It’s all tied together coherently now, at the expense of the brutalist character of the tower building.
    It’s all tied together coherently now, at the expense of the brutalist character of the tower building. · Credit: Hufton & Crow

Sheppard Robson designed all parts of the new building including interiors, signage and much of the furniture – more off-the-peg items of loose furniture were customised. This was done through the firm’s interiors division ID:SR. Pendant light fittings, for instance, take the form of hollow squares proportioned to the revealed cruciform concrete coffers of the tower building. Which is fine, except the corners of the squares are dark which I find mildly irritating.

I visited in fresher’s week which was a real test for the newly-spacious ground floor: it was handling the crowds just fine. Heseltine reckons student behaviour in the new library has improved greatly not only because of improved facilities (with screens and power points everywhere) but also less conflict over space, especially at exam times. Eventually he shows me his office, on the first floor of the old building. This was Larkin’s office: his bust is in the corner next to one of his portable typewriters. The large, now restored desk is the one that Larkin had made for him by Waring & Gillow in 1959. It is surprisingly ‘contemporary’ for one with supposedly conservative tastes. There’s a fireplace with original electric fire.

With its then-unfashionable colours, Larkin was embarrassed when modernists Sir Leslie Martin and Colin St. John Wilson dropped by. ‘For an hour or two it did seem rather garish, those reds & pinks & blues, & my room appeared like the madam’s room in a high class knocking-shop,’ he later recalled. What would he now think of all the couches and touch-down points and café society of his library? Approval? Disdain? We’ll never know.


IN NUMBERS

1777 study spaces
6 undergraduates per study space
54 group learning rooms
32 different types of study environment

£19.5m total contract cost
16,790 area in m²
£1164 gifa cost per m²

BREEAM Very Good

JCT SBC/XQ 2011 form of contract


 

Credits

Client University of Hull
Architect Sheppard Robson
Interior designer/FFE consultant/Signage Marie Leyland, Sheppard Robson (ID:SR) Structural,

M&E engineer and BREEAM consultant Arup
Quantity surveyor/CDM co-ordinator Gleeds
Acoustics AEC
Fire engineering Buro Happold
Contractor BAM Construction

Suppliers

Brickwork Regent Multi Stock by All About Bricks
Curtain walling FW 50+ by Schueco
Precast concrete feature panels Evans Pre-Cast
Louvres/solar shading Levolux
East Building windows Velfac
Landscape brick paving Wienerberger
Landscape concrete paving Marshalls
Ceramic tiling to ground floor Domus
Timber floor to gallery Dinesen
Feature glass wall cladding Chelsea Artisans
Feature timber wall cladding Topakustik
Feature zinc wall cladding VM Zinc
Glazed screens Komfort
Feature lighting Artemide
1950s replica lighting Aether Lighting
Furniture supplied by Ralph Capper Interiors
Bespoke joinery 3G
Bookshelves Ecospace