Will Alsop, (Britain)
A New Kind of Library
In the year 2000, Peckham Library won the prestigious Stirling Prize for the best new building in Britain. It was the third time Will Alsop had been shortlisted for the award, but his first victory.
Before Peckham Library was completed, Alsop already had a reputation as something of a maverick in the British architectural scene: for many, the bizarre structure peeking over the rooftops in south London merely confirmed that here was an architect who was very difficult to categorise.
At first sight, Peckham Library & Media Centre is not a Modernist building at all. Visitors would be hard pushed to work out that it is actually a library, were it not for the large sign on the roof.
Set in its own plaza, the building is essentially a giant inverted "L" (Alsop himself describes it as a giant rectangle with a bit cut out). Clad in copper, which gives it a greenish-blue hue, the bottom two floors house the information and media centre, whilst the top two floors cantilever dramatically eighteen metres across the plaza and are supported by thin, spindly columns set at bizarre, diagonal angles.
A giant orange tongue-shaped attachment flops out of the roof. The north-facing side is covered with multi-coloured glass panels, and inside a selection of giant pods house meeting areas, children's areas, and an Afro-Caribbean section. The whole building has an amazing gravity-defying quality: the 'legs' which hold up the top two floors look as if they should snap, causing the whole thing to topple over.
Alternatively, the Library can seem like a giant insect, somehow trapped in south London.
But Peckham Library is not an irreverent post-modern architectural joke. It is a very serious building with a strong social mission, where even seemingly irrelevant elements of its design are in fact central to its purpose.
The building was commissioned by the London Borough of Southwark as part of an ambitious urban regeneration project in one of London's poorer areas, and therefore had to be more than just another municipal library. Peckham Library's peculiarities allow it to fulfil this remit.
The Future of Modernism?
The "L" shaped design has the effect of creating a natural, sheltered meeting area in front of the library, which, combined with the generous plaza surrounding it, means that the library becomes the centre of a busy hub, rather than just another building on a street.
The cantilevered overhang also shades the façade from the sun, an important factor as the running costs had to be kept to a minimum, ruling out the installation of an air-conditioning system.
The bright glass on the north side allows a large amount of natural daylight to illuminate the building (further reducing running costs), whilst facing in a direction which prevents the whole place becoming a giant greenhouse.
The concrete frame is intended to allow the building to cool naturally, and the "tongue" on the roof acts as a shade for the ventilation shafts.
The actual library element of the building (the top two floors) is deliberately raised above the hubbub below, allowing readers the opportunity for quiet reflection as they browse the books or admire the panoramic views of central London beyond.
Peckham Library represents urban regeneration on a smaller scale than the Modernist housing schemes, which preceded it, and its Pop-Art appearance appears to place it outside the realms of the Modern Movement.
But at a time when many Modernist buildings are being re-appraised (Keeling House, Trellick Tower, the Lawn Road Flats), Peckham Library demonstrates how the laudable social goals of these Modernist icons can be integrated into a bold, unorthodox new way of building.