Centre of excellence: British Library receives Grade I listed status

Centre of excellence: British Library receives Grade I listed status

London’s King’s Cross may, arguably, have Central St Martins and the Guardian to thank for its resurgent ’destination’ status, given the steady opening of lauded restaurants, bars and pubs since the institutions shifted their HQs to the area, but it’s impossible to understate the importance of the British Library to the city’s cultural identity. 

Appropriate then, that the Library’s colossal building on Euston Road has been award Grade I listed status by the heritage minister Tracey Crouch, on the advice of Historic England. 

It’s easy to see why. Colin St John Wilson and MJ Long’s design – conceived and built between 1982 and 1999 – is easily the most impressive structure in a neighbourhood relatively giddy with them. The largest UK public building built in the 20th century, the Library’s exterior is an expansive wave of wavelike and geometric forms in red brick, set back behind a checkerboard courtyard dominated by Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1995 sculpture of Newton (after William Blake’s c. 1800 painting of the English mathematician). Its extraordinary form sets it quite apart from other contemporary architecture of its kind, municipal or otherwise.  

Inside, myriad reading rooms frequented by scholars, students and members of the public surround the King’s Library tower – an immense glass-walled structure containing the priceless book collection of King George III, an Enlightenment-era hoarding covering architecture, art, philosophy, agriculture and language (and much more in-between). 

The Library also houses a Treasures Gallery (holding artefacts as valuable as the Lindisfarne Gospels, Shakespeare’s first folio and Gutenberg’s Bible of 1455), extensive exhibition space and a cavernous foyer dotted with modern sculpture and textile works; a seamless and sympathetic amalgam of mannered modern design and traditional heritage, both conservational and egalitarian in ethos. 

The Library’s Grade I status places it within the top 2.5 per cent of listed buildings – an indication of exceptional design, architecture and philosophy, and an accolade shared in the area with the St Pancras Hotel and King’s Cross Station itself. 

’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,’ explains Roly Keating, the Library’s chief executive. ’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.’

Adds Roger Bowdler, director of listing at Historic England, ’The Library’s dramatic and carefully considered interiors achieve its ultimate goal: of creating a space to inspire thought and learning.’

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