Dunfermline’s Carnegie Library & Galleries could only be from the hand of Richard Murphy, says Charles Rattray
Dunfermline Carnegie Library & Galleries is a dramatic tour de force, but walking down Abbott Street it is surprisingly easy to miss – certainly not through architectural modesty but because most of it is hidden behind the facades of the existing library and a former bank. Both form part of this major project, both are grade-B listed – and neither is of particular merit. The significance of the library is that in 1883 it was the first of around 3,000 to be funded by Andrew Carnegie, the ultimate local boy made good: born in a one-room cottage nearby in 1835, by the end of the century he was the world’s richest man, and then gave most of his money away. Even this new building was part-funded by the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust.
The transformative extension of both bank and library can be glimpsed enticingly through a window in what was previously a gap between them, but the full story begins to unfold at the external entranceway. This frames an oblique view of the west facade – and it is a facade that could only be by one architect: Richard Murphy.
The layering of wall planes and the treatment of corners as different from the principal surface (even to the point that they seem to disappear), demonstrate the way he has explored a delamination of ‘solid’ buildings over 25 years in practice, and 30 in research (Murphy’s distinguished Carlo Scarpa studies began as a lecturer at Edinburgh University).
The object is not to show the multi-layered construction of a modern wall – where what you see is almost never what you get – but rather to enthuse about parts and episodes as much as form, to delineate boundaries between new and old and, from time to time, to operate as a symbolic code hinting at what lies behind.
Here, for example, where the flank wall of the bank was a combination of ashlar and rubble stonework, the rubble is cut away and replaced by a layer of Corten steel. This slices into the main volume a couple of metres behind an ashlar screen which is itself cut to reveal an oak surface, marking museum space, with a cafe terrace below.
It is easy to accept the ashlar screen as a reference to the existing ashlar wall, but the architect’s suggestion that the Corten refers to the local industrial heritage seems less plausible, and of course one may question why parts of a building should have a different expression at all.
But such misgivings are not the point – we are not in politely restrained ‘Gritty Brit’ territory after all. Murphy’s one-time employer and mentor Richard MacCormac once defined style as ‘a manner of undertaking something’ and on that basis Murphy’s consistent interrogation of Scarpa themes has resulted here in a virtuoso stylistic success.
On plan, the layering from east to west runs internally from old to new and then externally to a garden designed by the architect. In the centre, aligned with the old gap between bank and library, is a full-height void, bridged at different levels and flanked by what may be read as poché inhabited by passageways, stairs, lift and so on. On the east side are a ground-floor reading room and first-floor gallery spaces; to the west are a children’s room with access to the garden, a cafe occupying the mezzanine between ground and first floors, and the museum, situated opposite the galleries at first floor. That sounds easily diagrammatic, but the ensemble is wonderfully varied and dynamic. For example, whereas the galleries are calm rooms where you circulate horizontally, the museum space has two staircases and multiple route possibilities so that one can spiral upwards (to the first-floor mezzanine), enjoy the voids and weave a way down again.
Spatially it is like a multi-level play-park for adults as well as children – though the children have the additional pleasure of negotiating the 600mm-high maze in the garden. It is hard to be bothered about structure and servicing when you are having such fun (both are suppressed, by the way) but architects will enjoy rare treats: first in the beautiful new reading room, which reprises Aalto’s beloved stepped section with waves on plan; and then in the galleries, which make obvious reference to Kahn’s vaults at the Kimbell and surely – in gallery three with its oak sliding screen and domestic seating – hint at his Yale Center for British Art.
Even in that gallery, with its two works by the Scottish Colourist Samuel Peploe, it is hard not to gaze out of the windows. For the views here and everywhere else, internally and externally, are made by the architect; they frame trees, the great Romanesque abbey, the town and – perhaps most significantly – the spectacle of people circulating through the building. The old library, in comparison, is Beaux Arts and static. Whatever one thinks about modern architecture, there are some things it can do wonderfully well in the right hands. And if here, in Richard Murphy’s hands, modernism operates as theatre, the layers are its curtains.
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