Oxford University’s Weston Library, home to some of the nation’s most valuable books and manuscripts, has reopened following renovation by architectural practice Wilkinson Eyre.
Part of the university’s Bodleian Library, the grade II-listed building (formerly the New Bodleian) was originally designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in the 1930s. Situated opposite Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Clarendon Building and Christopher Wren’s grade I-listed Sheldonian Theatre, its renovation is at the heart of an ambitious period of renewal of the Bodleian’s facilities aimed at safeguarding its vast collection of books and manuscripts.
The project has created storage for the libraries’ special collections, which have been preserved for scholarship; developed the libraries’ space for the support of advanced research; and has expanded public access via new exhibition galleries and a lecture theatre.
By opening up the building to promote its special collections to the wider public, Wilkinson Eyre has also related the building more closely to its immediate context. Once described as a “dinner jacket made of Harris Tweed”, the Weston Library is now connected to the core Bodleian buildings.
The new Blackwell Hall, supported by a £5m donation from Julian Blackwell, is a publicly accessible, top-lit 13.5m-high space which forms the heart of the new library and features a café, information desk, a 16th-century tapestry map (the Sheldon Tapestry) and a 15th-century gateway on permanent loan from the V&A Museum.
The gateway originally led to the garden of the Dorner family’s estate at Ascott Park in Oxfordshire and was the only surviving structure following a fire in 1662. With the support of Oxfordshire Buildings Trust, the incorporation of this gateway sees this piece of architecture returned to its original home county in a new setting.
Blackwell Hall opens up to two new exhibition spaces and a café which are directly accessible through the new public entrance on Broad Street. Exhibition galleries have been added, along with other new facilities including a digital media centre, a visiting scholars centre, a lecture theatre and a suite of seminar rooms to enable teaching and masterclasses based on the library’s special collections. These facilitate contemporary research practices and techniques, supporting the library’s academic users, as well as enabling public interaction with the library’s collections. The refurbished library includes conservation workshops and facilities, where collections can be preserved in a secure and environmentally stable setting. The Bodleian’s special collections experts will now all be co-located in the building with their conservation colleagues, as will the Centre for the Study of the Book.
Whilst carrying out the refurbishment, Wilkinson Eyre has faced major challenges with its infrastructure. Scott’s original design replicated the typology of an Oxford University college but with the traditional quadrangle space in the centre occupied by an 11-storey book stack based around a large complex of unprotected steel framework.
With the New Bodleian previously struggling to meet national standards for the storage and exhibition of archival documents, Wilkinson Eyre have revised the layout, removing the upper floors of the colossal central stack and replacing them with a dedicated reading room and suite equipped with the latest research facilities. The three-storey stacks underground have been partially rebuilt and upgraded to modern archival standards and for the first time controlled shafts of daylight permeate into the heart of the building.
The highest storeys of Scott’s original building, hidden during the 1960s by an extension, have been re-instated and restored to include a new reading room with views of the city’s iconic spires. The slit windows arranged in rows, through which the spires are visible, are a signature Scott feature and a key expression of the building’s 1930s character. Scott was renowned for embracing modern building techniques and glazing in the building, including the slit windows, were the first large-scale use of anodised aluminium in the UK.
Particular care has been taken to restore and match Scott’s craftsmanship and original materials palette. One hundred and forty tonnes of salvaged stone were re-used in the new façades and external stonework – including two angels holding the University of Oxford coat of arms and the bust of Bodleian Libraries’ founder Sir Thomas Bodley above the King George VI door – has been cleaned and repaired. The original joinery in the main reading room, including a decorative, inlaid timber ceiling which mimics Native American and African designs in a stylised Art Deco manner, has also been cleaned and restored.
Picture credit: Ben Bisek of Wilkinson Eyre Architects