by Almas SadiqueAug 24, 2023
Founded as a Benedictine hostel in 1428, the College of Saint Mary Magdalene (re-founded in 1542 after its dissolution in the early 16th century) is today a constituent of the University of Cambridge, UK. Located at the bend of River Cam, this medieval monastic settlement grew around a forecourt—the first court—with a chapel, dining hall and other habitable spaces around it, albeit without the typified medieval monastery cloister. In the 17th century, a second court, to the east of the first, terminates at the Pepys Library—a Grade I listed neo-classical building that accommodated the former library of the college.
The ‘New Library at Magdalene College’ building was proposed as a means to substitute the compact and poorly equipped facilities of the former with a state-of-the-art facility that simultaneously accommodates a library, an archive and a gallery.
The project, which won the RIBA National Award, 2022 and Greater Cambridge Design and Construction Awards, 2022 amongst others, was commissioned in 2014 as part of a design competition. As the competition winners, London-based Níall McLaughlin Architects’ library design proposal, continued this arrangement of buildings around a quadrangular court by enclosing the existing Masters Garden that lies to the north of the first court. The consequent organisation results in a building that is fronted by the Fellows Garden on the east, along its longer elevation, and the fairly private Masters Garden to its west along its rear elevation, which is shorter than the front elevation.
The basic module for the library's architectural concept emerges from Antonello da Messina’s Renaissance painting ‘St Jerome in his Study’ that depicts a framed masonry room with a rhythmic series of solids and voids, which look outward through a window into a manicured landscape. Springing from this concept, a basic module of a single room—4.7m x 4.7m—accommodating a table for six people, and bookshelves along the wall with a clear circulation space is formulated. This module is framed in masonry with a timber construction of furniture, floors, structure, linings and joinery, repeated across a tartan grid. The arrangement of this module evolves from the modular design system of Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Centre Laboratory and Trenton Bath buildings, where the existence of two modules—a larger and smaller—is evident through the rhythm of the organisation of the plan.
In plan, this tartan grid allows a variation in the size of internal spaces within the layout. On the ground floor, a multipurpose social area and a picture gallery occupy five modules collectively, while a reading room is restricted to two modules. The archive workroom and archive store, on the other hand, take up a larger portion of four such units in the central bay.
On the first floor, a main reading room occupies more than three units, with smaller single-unit reading rooms around it.
While the plan is perceived as an organisation of modules, the section is explored through modulation of smaller and larger volumes, separated by interstitial passageways, developed from a section of Sir John Soane’s Museum building. The resulting building is a composition of varying volumes with interspatial corridors that are restricted between the rooms, thus enabling undisturbed circulation.
This variation of volumes is displayed through the spatial organisation of rooms, that in some places cut across multiple floors, while in others are restricted to a single floor. The reading room on the ground floor is a three-storey volume that pierces the slab of the first floor while the main reading room on the first floor is an expanded volume of two storeys that punctures through the slab of the second floor.
The section is partly composed of a modular system as well- comprising a folded plate-pitched roof, with a glazed triangular gable that imitates the lantern roof of the stone Pepys Library, and repeated over each module that makes up the plan.
At the intersection of the passageways, a structural system of four separate columns is developed that carries the load of the lantern roofs and timber floors. These brick masonry structural columns rise above the roof of the building where they expel hot air into the atmosphere. The facades at the lower levels bring in cool air into the interior design and coupled with the columns create a system of natural ventilation, functioning like a chimney.
The building is thus a composition of 12 modular volumes with a lantern roof, separated by 11 chimneys, with set-backs on the north and south elevations to accommodate existing trees on the site.
In elevation, each module consists of a French window at the base, a central fixed window with a pair of opening shutters on the first level, four bays of glazing on the second level, and a glazed triangular gable at the top. The façade design is thus an assemblage of gables, chimneys and bay windows, parodying the Jacobian Moyns Park at Essex.
The organisation of spaces creates a permeable building, in plan as well as in section. Through a series of voids interspersed within a regular grid plan, a diagonal movement of connectivity is achieved, which simultaneously facilitates visual connectivity across different levels of the library building.
The New Library at Magdalene College is thus a collage of contextual references on a historical site, that encapsulates a range of visual memories from the medieval to the modern.
The building was also awarded the RIBA Stirling Prize 2022.