Archive for April, 2014

British Library Basement

An invitation to explore the basements of the UK’s largest and most expensive 20th century public building was too good to turn down.

10 million bricks and 180,000 tonnes of concrete were used in the construction of the British Library. Despite its enviable position alongside one of the country’s favourite red-brick structures, St Pancras Station, it is not a pretty building. With 30 years to plan the project, it’s not really clear what architect Sir Colin St John Wilson spent his time doing. The bronze entrance gates have a certain wow factor but it’s downhill aesthetically from there. A huge courtyard presents so much opportunity for landscaping but, sadly, little of the £445 million construction cost was spent on plants.

The British Library has a variety of functions. It receives a copy of every publication that is produced in the UK and Ireland. It holds countless treasures including Magna Carta, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook and the first edition of The Times. The interior, therefore, is principally about functionality. The King’s Library – the personal collection of George III – takes pride of place in the centre of the building in a purpose-built glass tower. Around it, and also in another facility in Boston Spa, are 625km of shelves, which increase in length by 12km every year. This means 150 million items and 3 million new ones annually.

There are nine floors above ground and a further five hidden floors below to a depth of around 25m. The lower areas actually spread out beneath the aforementioned uninspiring courtyard across the whole site. I was lucky enough to visit with Mike Weatherley MP, Intellectual Property to the Prime Minister, to see some of the best bits of the library’s famous Sound Archive.

Lift 24, after several security checks, took us deep below the busy public areas to a fairly deserted part of the building. Well, it was devoid of humans but not robots. A complicated series of tracks on the high ceilings clicked away as we walked around as part of a highly-mechanised operation to distribute items around the building.

The most interesting bits of the Sound Archive for me were the many examples of defunct technology – Victorian wax cylinders, LaserDiscs and DATs. As the greatest library in the world, the collection will never be overshadowed by the building in which it is housed. But that is no excuse for such a drab structure.

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Lancing Beach Building

The Eco Open Houses event has become a well-established fixture in the Brighton & Hove architectural calendar. 2014 sees the addition of trails in both Worthing and Steyning.

Lancing Beach is the setting for the first building on the Worthing trail. The large structure is known by most people in Lancing as the ‘big unfinished building on the beach’. At 15,000sqft, it is immense. With an unrivalled position just metres from the sea, and serious bulk, it is so important that this building turns out well.

Things certainly seem to be ticking along nicely now, since father and son team John and Alex Hole got involved, but the original restaurant project dating from 2007 went badly wrong. A pub, arcade and bungalow on the site had been demolished to make way for a large restaurant but the owners went bust after running into planning trouble. The Holes purchased the shell of that scheme in a Parsons Son & Basley auction in December 2011.

A driveway leads from the main coast road to the beach building. At a glance, not much has changed. The building which is there now does look like, well, a shell. But it’s a very different shell to the one that was there before! Respected eco-architect Bill Dunster from ZEDFactory has been employed to design an updated scheme with a long list of environmentally-friendly features including an array of around 230 solar panels on the roof. And so it should. The Holes run a solar panel installation business after all. At 37kW, that’s enough to power around ten houses. It has all of the usual features too such as masses of (recycled) insulation, a heat pump and efficient glazing.

A completely new zinc roof has been added in the shape of a wave. The building divides into seven bays, each separated by a stone-clad pillar, across two storeys. Upstairs will consist of three flats and a micro-hotel sharing a large balcony looking out to sea. Downstairs – on the beach – will be a café alongside a watersports centre. This is entirely logical given Lancing’s kitesurfing heritage, which I knew nothing about until I visited.

There are eleven houses on the Worthing trail which is to take place on the weekend of 12th/13th April and four on the Steyning trail which will be held on Sunday 27th April. As always, the event is completely free. See www.ecoopenhouses.org for details.

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St Bartholomew’s Church Cross

When pieces of cross began appearing on the ground in front of St Bartholomew’s in Brighton, the church team knew that urgent action was required – and that large repair bills were on the way.

St Bart’s is known for different things to different people. Its Ark-like proportions are part of local folklore. Claims about its height come in many different forms. It’s pretty safe to say though that at 144ft, it is the tallest parish church in the country if spires aren’t included (to put this into perspective, the spire of St John’s in Hove is 160ft). This height and the monolithicness of the building generally, when considered against the surrounding rows of low terraces, are truly striking. And a cross at each end of the building provided the beacon that was so important in creating a beacon-like power that drew in the masses when it opened in 1874.

It was around five years ago that the deterioration of the famous cross on the south end of the building was noticed. The roof is inspected regularly and lightning conductors are inspected every 18 months. Iron bands were added at that point to strengthen it and later netting was added. A decision was recently taken to remove the cross which cost £5,000 in scaffolding alone.

The oak cross is currently situated within the entranceway of St Bart’s. It’s around 6ft high (9ft with its stone base that remains in place on the roof). It was installed in 1992 by a firm that was based, appropriately, on Chapel Street nearby but sadly hasn’t lasted anywhere near as long as its two predecessors. The previous cross was added in the early 1930s which replaced the original of 1874. Up-close, gold leaf, a lead collar and ornate detailing that could never be seen from the ground are apparent.

During my brief time in St Bart’s, I came to appreciate more its spell-bounding charm which draws in visitors from all around the world. As one of a number of Wagner churches in Brighton & Hove (a list that includes St Martin’s, St Michael & All Angels, St Patrick’s and St Paul’s), its history is about a lot more than just a building. But that’s a story for another time.

More pressing is what happens next to the roofline of one of Brighton’s most prominent landmarks. St Bartholomew’s just isn’t the same without its enticing cross.

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