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The Round Reading Room and the Great Court: an Appreciation

February 2002

     Four years ago, all lovers of libraries lamented the closing of the historic round Reading Room at the British Museum in Bloomsbury. Entering this secular sanctuary through padded leather swinging doors, my wife Martha and I, with our precious Reader's Tickets, had annually joined the generations of famous scholars and authors and the legion of unknown drudges who studied here since 1857. If our visits became routine during thirty years, the first moment of each, for me at least, was always tinged with awe. The spacious beauty of the high hushed dome, the circular ambit of the arched clerestory windows, the radial array of the three hundred massive reading desks, the concentric shelves of the vast leather-bound catalog, never failed to evoke a sense of high seriousness, permanence, and decorum. Then, too, my awareness that so many great minds had been drawn here over the generations, and that world's learning was freely available to serious students of all nations, always made me feel privileged and grateful that I, too, could work in this room. Its functional obsolescence and petty inconveniences were made more than tolerable by its architectural and historical ambience.

     During the 1980s news came that the British Library would move from its crowded site and strangling symbiosis with the British Museum. Its new location was revealed as a disused rail yard half a mile north on Euston Road adjacent to St. Pancras Station, an icon of Victorian architecture. The building would be very modern and spacious, designed for the electronic age, continuing growth, and expanded public services. We recall the ensuing sequence of design disputes, cost overruns, delays, inquiries, and feuds. But we also know that the new British Library, finally opened in June 1998 by the Queen, though controversial, is now generally considered a success.

     New readers who know nothing of the round Reading Room will be content, and for the most part well-served, in the several new reading rooms with their elegant oak furniture, carpeting, and computers, by the convenient upscale rest rooms and cafeterias, the silent lifts and escalators, the imposing courtyard, entry hall, galleries, meeting rooms, and bookstore. And, to be truthful, many unsentimental older readers are probably happier today with the new efficiency and amenities.

     But the regret for the loss of the Round Reading Room did not arise primarily because older readers were personally deprived of its ambience, but because they, and a concerned public, feared that the cherished room might be doomed by wreckers, debased by modernizers, or put to some inappropriate use. (There is plenty of precedent in Britain for lamentable destruction of old buildings and deplorable designs for new ones). Plans for its future were slow in reaching the public. But when the design by Norman Foster and Associates was finally announced in 1994, it was unexpectedly inventive and inspiring.

     Oddly enough, no reader had ever seen the outside of the great 107-foot high iron-framed brick cylinder of the Reading Room. The quadrangular two-acre inner courtyard of the Museum had not been accessible to the public for 140 years. No one entering the British Museum and passing through exhibition halls and corridors into the Reading Room at its center would have imagined a courtyard existed. As the library's holdings grew, more and more iron shelves and sheds to house them had been constructed in the courtyard. Three grand Ionic limestone porticos, as well as the Reading Room itself, disappeared behind these book stacks, storerooms, passageways, offices, and ducts. Transferring all 3,000,000 books to the new building at St. Pancras was just the beginning of a vast 150 million-dollar demolition and construction project whose history is beyond my scope here. The result, revealed in December 2000, is what matters.

     The original purpose of the Museum's Victorian designers--to have both a handsome courtyard and a magnificent reading room--has at last been realized, but in a manner that far transcends the imagination and technology of their age. All our concerns about a dire fate for the Round Reading Room have vanished. The ill-used space around it has become the grandest covered courtyard in Europe, now appropriately named the "Great Court."

     What makes the new inner museum complex such a remarkable achievement? Its definitive feature is an immense glass canopy, a subtly complex computer-designed structure of 3,312 triangular panels floating over the entire courtyard in an undulating, spiraling pattern. A pearly radiance suffuses the space, and a tracery of arcing shadows from the steel supporting shell creeps slowly across the limestone floor and restored porticos. Dramatically, the shadow network also curves around the limestone facade of the restored Reading Room, the stunning centerpiece of the Great Court. Twin monumental staircases encircle the 140-foot diameter drum, rising in stages from the ground-level south entry to a semi-enclosed restaurant on the north. The conceptual elegance and engineering finesse of the Great Court leave visitors, their voices hushed, wandering in admiration.

     But is the round Reading Room still a library? Yes! Passing through the portal between the diverging staircases, we see a glorious re-creation of the old room in its ideal state before it began to be compromised by grime and clutter. The azure, cream and gold dome is resplendent. The desks, refurbished, are as before. The old British Museum catalog is still here, now literally a museum piece replaced by the electronic catalog at St. Pancras and on the Internet. Thousands of books still line the walls. But whose books? The British Library has indeed departed but, to the surprise of many, the British Museum has always had its own specialized books in support of its collections, and they are now supplemented by the 25,000-volume Paul Hamlyn Library of World Cultures. For the first time in history the Round Reading Room is open to the public, and now it serves as a guide to the riches of the Museum. What an appropriate way to combine the traditions and facilities of twin cultural institutions entering the twenty-first century within an inspirational architectural setting that integrates the best of the old and the new!

Albert R. Vogeler