Cozy corners amid a stack of books: The time-spanning library is Britain’s best new building | Stirling Prize

Six hundred years after its founding as a student hostel for Benedictine monks, Magdalen College in Cambridge has been awarded the RIBA Stirling Award for Best New Building in the UK – for a library designed to last another four centuries.

Standing next to the 17th-century Pepys Library, the cramped study spaces it replaces, the new Magdalene Building has a timeless air. In front of a fellows’ garden with its row of tall stone chimneys and leaning gables, it seems to have traveled back in time from the college’s Tudor past, transported only through an abstract, modern lens. Its red brick walls and oak dotted windows recall the college’s medieval playgrounds, while the interior unfolds as a three-dimensional grid of bookshelves and cozy reading nooks.

A network of bookshelves … inside the Stirling Prize-winning library. Photography: Nick Keane

The college beat competition from an arts and community center, a primary school, an office complex, a housing scheme, and another teaching college for this year’s Royal Institute of British Architects award.

The library is a building where everything you see does its job, all meticulously built by contractor Cocksedge, with load-bearing brick walls and polished wood floors, set on chunky glulam beams. There is no paperback, so it is ubiquitous in contemporary construction. These are solid things, built to last. Up to at least 2400.

“The overall commitment to building something that will stand the test of time can be felt in every material and detail, and from every point of view,” said RIBA President Simon Alford, chair of the Stirling Prize jury. “This is an example of how to build for the long term.”

It caters to all tastes, from the extroverted to the aloof... The building offers a variety of reading and working spaces.
It caters to all tastes, from the extroverted to the aloof… The building offers a variety of reading and working spaces. Photography: Nick Keane

It is the work of Níall McLaughlin, a London-based Irish architect who has been shortlisted for the award on three previous occasions. In 2013, he made the list with an oval stone gem in a chapel at Ripon College Cuddesdon, near Oxford. He returned in 2015 with a set of biscuit brick apartments for Peabody in east London, and again in 2018 with a temple-like lecture theater at Worcester College, Oxford. All demonstrate McLaughlin’s skillful ability to craft structures that respect their context without undergoing a process of imitation, which is entirely of their time. It’s a talent that has made him a favorite of Oxbridge clients: he has 15 illustrious college projects either built or under way. And the Magdalene Library is his best so far.

“A forest of books,” McLaughlin described the building. Students enter a three-height space, where they face a large grove of brick pillars, supporting a branching frame of wooden decks and shelves that rise into what looks like a forest canopy for learning, above an art gallery and archive. Created by a repeating unit of square rooms, this selfie structure creates a variety of reading and working spaces.

There is a long dining hall-like communal table, reminiscent of Medieval Mead’s Hall, along with more solitary cubby holes tucked away in the corners, all flanked by walls of books. It caters to all tastes, from extroverted to aloof. One desk displays to the middle of the triple-height void, viewed on all sides. It is known as the “Prima Donna Office”, for the student who wants everyone to know they are studying.

“Students come to the library so they can work separately but together,” said Deputy Librarian Tom Sykes. “It’s motivating to see other people working, but you also have to be able to focus or hide away. This building offers a great mix of spaces, so there is something for everyone.”

Daylight streams through a network of vaulted lanterns on the roof, making the building look like an airy pavilion in the garden, with views of ancient yew trees. Natural ventilation is provided through brick chimneys, and fresh air is drawn in through sagittal-hole ventilation panels by window seats; These are open to give a glimpse of the river behind.

Sylvan structure ... ceiling in the library.
Sylvan structure … ceiling in the library. Photography: Nick Keane

Upon winning the award, McLaughlin was quick to pay tribute to the team effort. He said: “The library is the work of many hands and many minds.” “The college created the potential for success the way they started and project management. Designers, consultants, builders and craftsmen were carefully appointed. Throughout the development process, our team was supported and questioned forcefully in our decisions.”

It seems fitting that the inscription of a plaque in the entrance with the Latin words “faber sum” – I am a craftsman – acknowledges the skill of the many craftsmen who brought this enchanting place to life.

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