Women's Library

Women's Library in London, England by Wright & Wright Architects, 2002

Although not an award winner by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) proper, Wright & Wright Architects' Women's Library in London, England was chosen by the RIBA Journal as the "Building of the Year". While the last Stirling Prize was given to a pedestrian bridge, a structure expressing technology and engineering, this library on Old Castle Street is a quiet masonry container with internal subtleties rather than extroverted flair. The contrast between the two projects is indicative of much contemporary British architecture: light or heavy. This simplification is not to detract from either work, but to place the Women's Library in a tradition of building in British architecture that is solid and rewarding.

The library sits on the site of an old wash house from the Victorian era and houses the largest collection of books in its home country devoted to women's history. Its program consists of the usual book storage and reading rooms, along with a seminar room, exhibition space, offices, cafe and a garden. Both a renovation and new construction, the building steps in plan and section to build up in scale from the retained wash house facade to the mass of the new building. A copper-clad volume (at left) acts as a link between old and new, its materiality reacting to the dark brick of the old and the orange brick of the new. Inside the building continues its use of brick from the exterior, also using stone, wood, steel and glass to create a calm environment suitable to the building's purpose.

According to the architect, "we have a reputation for producing extremely high quality, sustainable buildings using traditional materials, often in innovative ways. Our buildings do not follow the quirks of fashion but instead consist of ordered, legible spaces that are beautifully and carefully detailed." A promotional statement indeed, but one that is accurately reflected in the Women's Library. For example the strict air quality measures required for the book archives are achieved through passive means, not mechanical, so the building actually has less that a quarter of energy costs versus a conventional system. Also the simple plan with the main stair (at left) illustrates the ordering of the spaces through the library, lovingly crafted with oak and stone finishes on the interior.

In addition to the care of the architecture, the Women's Library is notable for the mere fact of its existence, a place for "celebrating and recording women's lives". The library's archive houses materials ranging from suffrage to the abolition of prostitution, with the exhibition at the time of this article looking at the transition for girls into womanhood. All in all, the library is an extremely positive place that stresses pride and the enjoyment of life, much like the architects whose place an importance "that we and our clients have fun."