Wednesday, August 10, 2005

[This is a rehashed version of part of an earlier post].

GF2 600 - 12 Alton Library SouthwestAlton Library.

A few months ago I read an article in the Guardian about Alton Library. David Sucher had commented on his blog, City Comforts, about the building. As I'm much closer to Alton than he is, and I discovered that it had won a RIBA award, I decided to visit it.

After spending a long time trying to find the library, I walked down into the small valley in which it rests. My initial reaction was one of dismay. I was expecting something grander, or perhaps something in a more suitable environment.

The library stands on a wide corner of a sweeping road. On one side it is flanked by a disused pebbledashed structure. Up the hill behind it is a car park belonging to another organisation and beyond that robust brick-built blocks of flats. On the other side of the hill are more monolithic flats, set back behind a very wide pavement and the perimeter wall. Facing the main axis of the building, across the wide pavements, bus stop and wide road, are an office of some sort, and a dry cleaners, both housed in buildings at least a century old. But most of the opposing side of the street is a car park or access to another car park.

GF2 600 - 11 Alton Library WestThe library has been described as by others as barn-like. I can understand how they got to that conclusion, but I cannot agree with it. I see a large wall with huge square windows, all of which are covered by blinds or some material which achieves an even white wash effect. They create a similar appearance to plywood boards covering the openings on the neighbouring building.

Between the two buildings is a small corral in front of a new, yet partially rebuilt, brick shed which I assume contains a transformer. The corral is surrounded by black wooden fencing complete with latched 5-bar gate. It looks like the sort of place smokers gather. It's even got space age ashtrays; closer inspection reveals these to bike racks with saddle covering disks. These are mounted too close the fence to be useful, yet the also apparently block the full-width gate, even when unused. Assuming the gate swings outwards, over the pavement, nothing near the full width of the gate could pass the bike racks. As there is a small gate beside it, the main gate is apparently pointless.

The bike racks are unused.

I try to find an awe-inspiring view from the hill behind the library. I am not much inspired by anything, let alone awestruck. I find the church, and am told to go to the library to gain more information about events in its history.

I return down the hill, taking the other route, which leads me out at the other end of the library. From the hill it is still smooth brick walls one way, shaded windows the other, but now seen from the undesigned angle. I think I know what the architect was trying, but it's not quite there. It is architectural monkey-see-monkey-do, an outsider's take like Thames Town in Shanghai.

I think it is just too clean, in both senses. One sense stems from age, so I need not worry, and fake old is worse than new. But the lines are too clean. It is a box, presumably steel girder bound, with a brick skin. I'm borrowing a term from Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn (and he in turn had borrowed it), but it is apt.

When I first read his book, and saw the diagram of layers, I wondered how structure and skin could be separate. Masonry does both things at the same time. Now I'm more aware of different techniques and that structure and skin do diverge.

GF2 600 - 14 Alton Library SoutheastAlton library unsettles me through this apparent divorce. The brick is too smooth, too sleek. It is a computer rendering; a flat plane of a tiled pattern. It has been praised for barn-like qualities, but barns are either massive chunky buildings - with ramparts, beams and buttress - or they are steel frames hung with corrugated steel and plastic with gaps where the builder could not devise a join. And this is the latter hung in the clothing of the former.

Perhaps it is more architecturally honest than aping solidity, but if that was part of the design brief then why not leave it at steel frame and breezeblock? Leave the outside built like the inner face of a cavity wall.

It doesn't quite work. For me.

But the purpose of my visit was not to critique the modern slant on the rural urban style. It was assessment in the light of David Sucher's 3 rules.

1. Build to the sidewalk
It was. But I think mountain came to Mohammed. The property lines of all the neighbouring buildings suggest that the road was originally far narrower with a much sharper corner. As the library sits on the inside of the bend, and the corner of the site forms the apex of the bend, reducing the site eases the bend. The other end of the main face, has is a very deep pavement [sidewalk] beside an inset bus stop and a normal two lane road. The boundary wall on the neighbour would enclose the pavement and most of the bus-stop if extended.

- Make the building front permeable:
Physically: The only public entrance is at the south-eastern corner.
Visually: A third of the southern edge of the site is blank wall or fenced-in blank space. The rest of that face is a series of large plate-glass windows. Due to the lighting when I visited (an overcast day in summer), all I saw when I walked past was a reflection of me, the traffic, and the car park over the road. All I could see inside the building was the leg of one table near a window. As for the other street face, it was largely blank brick wall for the depth of the building.

- Prohibit parking lots in front of the building
Parking was beside, behind, across and round, but not in front of the building. The only things allowed to stop in front were buses (not that I saw one). But parking between the pavement and the building is rare in this country (Alton Con. Club, and most other buildings along the road south excepted). But to compensate much of the surrounding street-face was the edge of car parks. Both immediately neighbouring sites are car parks, as is the site opposing the main facade (access to which restricts pedestrian access).

On all three rules it vaguely corresponds.

Inside the library.
I entered to find the display about the Battle of Alton which happened in the church. I found a display on the civil war. But do not find any mention of Alton. Instead it referred only to The Sealed Knot (LARPing in the name of history).

A quick scan round revealed that it was a library, with standard library fare. Bookcases, displays, a couple of trolleys of ex-library items for sale. I passed up the opportunity to get "The Best of Gary Glitter Live" for 50p. The interior itself was even more non-descript than the outside. Flat white everywhere. Down the far end was a hole through to an even flatter whiteness, presumably housing the stairs and lift.

An island in front of the door holds the forlorn looking librarians. To the right of the door is an inviting walled-in wooden staircase, with computer printed A4 stating "Staff Only". Beyond that a cubbyhole with wall mounted CD player and industrial headphones juxtaposed with exposed brick. It's occupied solely by a bored boy flicking through a magazine. It's not quite small enough to be for one person, but it's not big enough for adults to ignore each other. It might supposed to be for children (but why do they get the CD player?) but the bright, low furniture could just mean furbishers went to IKEA.

The Guardian piece mentions of innovative use of oak joinery, and yet I saw only plaster; presumably they nestle in the private offices at the top. The only wood I saw was on the forbidden staircase, and the slats on the louvres.

I leave feeling foolish and bemused, taking the alleyway back to the High Street. The alley is about as nice as anything the neighbours try to block out; blank brick canyons are obviously the answer. I emerge onto the High Street with a face full of industrial frying fumes. I am opposite a shop which has gone bust, and yet confusing shares the same colourscheme with its neighbour, so the shop has apparently half closed down.

Compared to the rest of the town the library is good; compared with elsewhere, or its own potential, it is not.


PS. Editing is quite hard, especially when I end up having to cut out some of the best lines, and still leave in so much dross, simply for want of a better way with words. And does anyone know how trackbacks work, or even if they work in Blogger? I'm experimenting, which is probably not a good thing.

Blogger doesn't support trackbacks, sadly. I think you may be able to do it with something like Haloscan though, if you're in an experimental (experimentative? why can't we have that as a word) mood.
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