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New Library for Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Cover project in hinge Magazine
Issue 198, February 2012

Photos: Nicholas Kane

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'London-based Kilburn and Nightingale Architects has produced this small-scale addition to the campus library at Emmanuel College Cambridge, easing it gently into a historic context in a way that respects its neighbours whilst stating its own character. Unlike the pre-existing structure in form, the new volume is an Alvar Aalto-esque, curvaceous, timber-clad amoeba amidst plenty of stone and brick surrounding it. It is very much an 'addition' to the main building, but benefits from the status, appearing something like a small jewel upon a larger dress.

The selection of wood as the dominant material, both inside and out, assists enormously in making th addition both deferential and special. It renders the cube-like form less heavy and, as it is perched at the corner of the linear library, makes it appear almost like a pavilion enhancing the precinct of the library and its garden. Vertically-orientated timber cladding is interrupted by large glazed windows and,on two sides, vertical slots running the full height of the building. These strips divide the carrels inside the library, and are whimsically finished with coloured glass panels, hinting at both tradition and intelliectual activity - appropriate for the programme and the place.

'On the interior, the building is dominated by warm, inviting spaces at an alomst domestic scale, with abundant nooks to nest into with books or work to do. Plenty of natural light keeps things casual and user-friendly, and the palette of materials is contemporary and unfussy; this is unquestionably a place to do concetrated work in.

'Fitting a new piece into an existing ensemble of any historical merit is always a bit of a risk; there is an enduring challenge of balancing respect with statement, pride with humility. Somehow, the new Emmanuel College Cambridge library addition seems to get that just right. It is its own language, form and character, but doesn't try too hard to prove it.'