Reading Architecture: legibility and allure foster civic purpose in FAT’s Thornton Heath library refurbishment, finds Beatrice Galilee.
Thornton Heath train station on a rainy Monday afternoon. The fading red and yellow signs of burger joints and fried chicken chains are lamely fighting for attention in a myriad world of discount stores and barber shops. This once well-heeled railway suburb of Croydon is almost entirely anonymous apart from for a small acknowledgement on the website ‘ChavTowns’.
But things are changing. Walk a little further down the road, past the Victorian-era housing stock and look into the middle distance. Alongside rooftops and bay windows, the word LIBRARY in large white letters pops into focus. The metre-high sign together with the protruding white concrete pavilion it stands upon enthusiastically signal a new era for the town’s library. London-based architect FAT has completed a comprehensive refurbishment, extension and rebranding, and since opening this summer the project has seen visitor numbers treble.
Commissioned by the council with funding from the Big Lottery, the brief set for FAT was tight and demanding. The existing building is a 1914 Carnegie library, one of over 2,800 commissioned around the world by the Victorian philanthropist. The design is typical with a grand arched doorway completed by a stone crest at the centre of two blank brick facades with clerestory windows. Crumbling conditions, poor light and inaccessibility meant that the building needed to be brought up to date. FAT was invited to smarten up the facade, add new facilities, improve circulation and access, bring in new community functions and start to return the library to its rightful place at the focal point of the town, lest the large Tesco on the other side of the bridge assume the role.
‘The library had no status within the context of the High Street’, says FAT partner Charles Holland. ‘It was almost invisible unless you knew about it. We didn’t want to make something vacuously cheery or information store-ish, but we did identify a need for the building to communicate in a bolder way. So we wanted to do something very directly communicative and visible that would compete with the commercial signage of the rest of the high street.’
Inside the white concrete and glass pavilion, beneath the library sign, three elderly men are sitting in a row, slowly making their way through the day’s papers and occasionally gazing out onto the rainy pavement below. This new pavilion is conceived as a public reading room, visible and accessible from the street. Indeed, it feels more like a quiet part of a coffee shop than the extension of a library – generous in size and light with oak flooring, cosy cushion-covered benches and lime green armchairs completed by two shiny bright Tom Dixon copper lampshades.
People buzz through the entrance busily with prams and children and shopping bags. In the previous incarnation there were three level changes on the ground floor alone, so the ease of use and the lovely wooden floorboards that smartly bring together the space are entirely new to the users here. The location of desks and functions has also been streamlined. The whole ground floor is oriented by a central octagonal room lit by a bright glass dome. Rich wooden columns meet glassy green ceramic tiles cladding the lower parts of the walls and hint at the past life of this space. This was once the desk area but is now open with more friendly low seating and directs visitors through its eight archways to the new areas. Flanking this space there is a wealth of new equipment, automatic book machines and scanners.
FAT was commissioned for the interior fit-out too and its design for the chunky oak bookshelves is clever and generous. All of the shelves are fitted with casters so the rooms and spaces can be easily reconfigured. If a pair of seated legs appears to be emerging from the middle of the horror section, worry not, it’s because many of the bookstacks have soft seats cut into the middle, end or back of of them. This shelf-seat hybrid isn’t just a space saving device, it gives the library a feeling of being used and actively encourages people to dip in and out of books at will and browse and linger for as long as they want. This gentle touch gives visitors a very different experience of reading than a sniffy bookshop or sterile online bookstore.
At the back of the library, access to the lower ground floor is through a new timber-framed circulation core. The exterior walls of the existing library are exposed on one side and in front the huge glass windows look out onto the as yet untended community garden. Slightly less delightfully there is also a framed view of the bin store of a residential development to the right. The lower ground floor has been entirely refurbished with grand ICT suites, community rooms and children’s library and access to the garden.
The programme of this library is clearly far more than the acquisition and lending of books. In an area such as Thornton Heath, which suffers from high levels of deprivation as well as a lack of public space, the task of rejuvenating the library has all sorts of particular complexities ranging from literacy levels and the need to provide training and access to computers to dealing with prejudices – one local newspaper had sneered that they would need to ‘nail the books down.’ Instead, this is a library that offers not just space but time and dignity to read, access job hunting schemes or join cookery and language classes in a respectable environment. This is not an attempt to solve the riddle of the twenty-first century library, but the community garden, the rooms for hire on the first floor and the dedicated ICT suites have made an emphatically civic contribution to this suburb.
FAT has long been fascinated with the idea of using architecture as signs, from its public buildings, such as the Villa community centre at Hoogvliet in the Netherlands, to smaller scale interventions and sculptures. At Thornton Heath its pavilion does far more than just locate the presence of the library. ‘It’s about being directly communicative, treating the building almost literally as a sign, while acknowledging that there are other ways to experience it such as the materials – polished concrete – the scale and proportions that relate to the existing building, and the spatial qualities’, says Holland. ‘These hopefully give it a nice civic quality. Having said that, the rest of the project is quite quiet, semiotically speaking. For us it’s pretty pared back.’
Beatrice Galilee is a London-based architecture writer and curator.
Architect: FAT; design team: Charles Holland, Tomas Klassnik, Charlotte Luther, Sara Griffiths, Sean Griffiths, Sam Jacob; contractor, specialist joinery: Killby & Gayford; project management: Mace; structural engineer: Fluid.Structures; services engineer: Edmund Shipway; cost consultant: Mace Sense; CDM/C: Mace Sustain; client: London Borough of Croydon.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Precast concrete: Evans Concrete Products; timber curtain walling: Glass Tech Facades; rainscreen cladding: Cembrit; hardwood windows: Dendura; metal/wood windows: Velfac; external balustrading: Brass Age; lighting: Erco; timber flooring: Priory Hardwoods; roofing: Bailey Roofing Systems; rainwater goods and copings: Dales Fabrication; ironmongery: 3V; bespoke furniture: Killby & Gayford.
First published in AT211, Sept 2010