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Emma Extends

featured project in 'College Libraries,' Cambridge Architecture, No. 62

Spring / Summer 2011

by Jeremy Lander

Photographs: Nick Kane

Project Team:

  • Architects: Kilburn Nightingale
  • Structural Engineers: Price and Myers
  • Services Engineers: Ramboll
  • Quantity Surveyor: Peter W.Gittins and
  • Contractor: Killby and Gayford

See also:

Other articles about this project:

'Faced with the need to accommodate more readers and books and to improve access, Emmanuel College chose to extend its 1970s extension. Architects Kilburn Nightingale suggested a thick re-cladding. Jeremy Lander considers the outcome.

'Emmanuel College library is a fascinating example of how a building complex can change and grow organically - like a hermit crab finding a new shell when it needs more space, or like a mollusc that grows by adding layer upon layer.

'From 1673 the library was housed in the old chapel which became vacant when Christopher Wren's new chapel was completed. In 1931 it moved to the 1909 lecture-room building designed by Leonard Stokes that overlooks the wonderful lawns and pond at the southern end of the site. The red brick and stone building was converted and extended by one third, almost seamlessly, by Stokes' younger partner George Drysdale. In the early 1970s the library began to outgrow the Stokes building and architects Cruikshank Seward designed an extension attached to the south-west corner [B]. It was a singularly drab building with chamfered corners, expressed concrete floor slabs and panels of brick similar to the adjacent 1966 South Court by Tom Hancock, but without any of its charm.

'Since then the library has grown and grown (the death of the book having been announced prematurely) and from about 2001 the College began thinking about another extension. It commissioned a number of feasibility studies to establish and test the brief - to provide at least 60 new reader spaces, additional rare book and archive storage, better access for wheelchair users and greater environmental controls as both the rare book collections on the ground floor of the Stokes building and the 1970s building suffered badly from solar gain and lack of insulation.

'It's a wrap!

The main thrust of the brief was to re-use the Cruikshank building rather than re-build it. Re-use was seen as a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable approach. Phasing would also be easier as alternative accommodation for book storage would not be needed during construction and, despite its shortcomings, the Cruikshank building was a very efficient book store with low floor to floor heights crammed with shelves. However, lack of reader spaces meant users had to trek back and forth between it and the reading room in the Stokes building, negotiating tricky level changes. Opening up the 1970s building to provide new reader spaces and improving the connection between the two was crucial to any new design.

'When a competition was held in 2005 it was won by the London practice of Kilburn and Nightingale (formerly Cullum & Nightingale) ; they had built relatively few libraries but had the classy red-brick Central School of Speech and Drama library in their portfolio and were working at Corpus Christi on rehousing the world renowned Parker Library. They convinced the College with a clever refinement of the re-cladding idea, wrapping the 1970s building in a layer thick enough to house the additional reader spaces. They then fitted the remaining additional accommodation neatly between the Stokes building and the ancient wall that marks the historic southern boundary of the College [5 and 10].

'The decision to reuse and recycle seems a sensible one but it is interesting to imagine what future generations might make of it. In the past libraries have been moved or entirely rebuilt - why cling on so tightly to the 1970s skeleton? If it saved a little on time and budget how important was this when colleges measure their projects in terms of centuries? It is certainly interesting to contrast the different approaches over the years: 1673 and 1909 - let's move; 1931 - let's make the extension appear exactly the same; 1970s - let's make the extension an appendage; and 2011, let's bond the appendage more closely to the host building yet make it strikingly different by cladding it with timber.

Clever, complex and cosy

Timber is the material of our time and in Emmanuel's new library we have it in abundance, in this case as vertical 'board on board' sweet chestnut, a locally-sourced and sustainable timber which is left untreated [3]. The cladding ripples around all of the new envelope, folding into fins on the south and west side (these resemble the spines of books) and between these are vertical windows of stained and etched glass [9] providing a contrast to the earthiness of the chestnut and an opportunity to display benefactors' names. They also cleverly steer views away from the nearby bedrooms of South Court and create individual reader spaces which are cosy without feeling claustrophobic [1]; you can really imagine finding your favourite space and settling down to work with just the right level of distraction. The wrapping is made to work hard too - services travel up and down within the pochés created by the beautifully detailed oak joinery.

'On the top of the Cruikshank building is a new reading room [2]. This is an elegant space with round rooflights and wonderful views over the rooftops but externally the opportunity to express it as a true 'attic' storey with different surface treatment was not taken, instead there is more chestnut cladding. This is a pity as the concept of the chestnut as a wrapping loses some of its purity.

'The new entrance and reception area is a delightfully rich and complex space with an angled view to the walled garden through an atrium which, with its chestnut brise soleil, forms an environmental buffer to the Stokes building. The 1909 mahogany staircase was reconfigured to lead off the new reception and at first floor, where before there was a tiny glass umbilical link, there is now a wonderfully flowing space with views towards Parker's Piece. A Common Room looks back across a green roof planted with meadow flowers that extends the idea of the garden up through the new building. The refurbished Stokes interior provides a sumptuous foil for the white walls and crisp joinery of the extension but it is interesting, and not surprising, that the 1970s were not thought to be worth celebrating at all, the only sign being a slightly incongruous staircase. As with most transplants the donor organ is vital but invisible.'

Jeremy Lander is a partner in Freeland Rees Roberts, architects.