British Library has last laugh with Grade 1 listing

Much derided during its construction, the British Library is now in the top rank of UK buildings; seven other libraries listed grade two.

The British Library has been listed Grade I by Heritage Minister, Tracey Crouch on the advice of Historic England and joins the top 2.5% of listed buildings in England.

Originally designed by architect Sir Colin St John Wilson and his partner MJ Long the Library was built between 1982 and 1999 by contractor John Laing, it was the largest UK public building to be constructed in the 20th century.

"Colin St John Wilson’s stately yet accessible design incorporates fine materials and a generous display of public art. The Library’s dramatic and carefully considered interiors achieve its ultimate goal: of creating a space to inspire thought and learning" Roger Bowdler, Historic England

It sits on the Euston Road in London close by fellow Grade 1 listed structures, the St Pancras Hotel and Station and King’s Cross Station.

During the Library’s construction between 1982 and 1998 it was plagued by bad press with horror stories of what was, then, seen as the immense cost of £445M and the time it took to build, along with tales of floods and failed stacking systems. But from its opening in 1998, the beautifully crafted structure has won the public round.

Intended to move and inspire its visitors, today the British Library is much-loved and well-used by scholars and members of the public alike. 

The architecture is described as  "both immense and extraordinary" with five public floors sweeping upwards like a wave.

There are11 Reading Rooms surrounding the Library’s centrepiece - the magnificent King’s Library tower, home to the library of George III as well as the Treasures Gallery that hold national Treasures such as Magna Carta, Lindisfarne Gospels and original Beatles lyrics.

 “The British Library divided opinion from the moment its design was revealed, but I am glad that expert advice now allows me to list it, ensuring that its iconic design is protected for future generations to enjoy,” said Crouch when she announced the listing.

The listing coincides with seven libraries from across the UK that have been awarded Grade II status. These are:

•  Suffolk Record Office, Suffolk (1963-5, Donald McMorran)

•  Bebington Central Library, The Wirral (1967-71, Paterson, Macauley and Owens)

•  Milton Keynes Central Library, Milton Keynes (1979-81, Buckinghamshire County Council architects)

•  Chandler’s Ford Library, Eastleigh, Hampshire (1981-2, Hampshire County Council architect Colin Stansfield Smith)

•  West Sussex Library, West Sussex (1965-6, county architect F R Steele)

•  Bourne Hall Library & Social Centre, Epsom, Surrey (1967-70, A.G. Sheppard Fidler and Associates)

•  Lillington Library, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire (1959-60, Henry Fedeski)

“Libraries are the cornerstones of the communities they serve. They act as meeting places, provide areas to learn and are a credit to the volunteers at the heart and soul of the service. Many of these libraries have stood proudly in their communities for more than 50 years and I am thrilled that these institutions can be admired for many years to come,” the Heritage Minister said.

According to director of listing at Historic England, Roger Bowdler: “The British Library is one of England’s finest modern public buildings. Listing it at Grade I acknowledges its outstanding architectural and historic interest. Colin St John Wilson’s stately yet accessible design incorporates fine materials and a generous display of public art. The Library’s dramatic and carefully considered interiors achieve its ultimate goal: of creating a space to inspire thought and learning.

“Historic England has had a really constructive consultation with the British Library throughout. The way it has been listed celebrates its qualities, and points out just what does make it special. This will enable it to go on flourishing as a dynamic public building, in which appropriate change is welcomed.

“It joins a select group of other listed post-war public libraries on the National Heritage List for England. Even in today’s digital age, there is a clear future for these buildings. They illustrate a wide range of architectural styles, and together represent the very best in public architecture.”

Chief Executive of the British Library, Roly Keating, said: “We are delighted that Colin St John Wilson’s courageous and visionary design for the British Library’s London building has been recognised by a listing at the highest level. Even in the relatively short period since its opening it has worked its way into the affections of millions of visitors and researchers, who have discovered its beautiful spaces, subtle use of natural light and exquisite detailing.

“It is also a privilege to be listed alongside a group of distinguished public library buildings from across the country. As well as celebrating architectural excellence, this listing is a reminder, in the midst of the digital age, of the vital importance of libraries as physical spaces of the highest quality at the heart of their communities.”


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