Independent Art Voice

Contentious British Library Achieves Grade 1 Listed Status As Public Opinion Mellows

Love it or loath it, the ever controversial British Library at St Pancras designed by architect Sir Colin St John Wilson and his partner MJ Long between 1982 and 1999 has been granted Grade 1 listed status. Heritage Minister, Tracey Crouch on the advice of Historic England said: “The British Library divided opinion from the moment its design was revealed, but I am glad that expert advice now allows me to list it, ensuring that its iconic design  is protected for future generations to enjoy.” It will now join the top 2.5% of listed buildings in England. It was the largest UK public building to be built in the 20th century. Intended to move and inspire its visitors, the British Library’s London site is much-loved and well-used by scholars and members of the public alike for its soaring and stimulating spaces.

With its five public floors sweeping upwards like a wave, the architecture is both immense and extraordinary.  Surrounded on both sides by 11 Reading Rooms, the Library’s centrepiece is the magnificent King’s Library tower, home to the library of George III as well as the Treasures Gallery that hold national Treasures such as Magna Carta, Lindisfarne Gospels and original Beatles lyrics.

Director of Listing at Historic England, Roger Bowdler, said: “The British Library is one of England’s finest modern public buildings. Listing it at Grade I acknowledges its outstanding architectural and historic interest. Colin St John Wilson’s stately yet accessible design incorporates fine materials and a generous display of public art. The Library’s dramatic and carefully considered interiors achieve its ultimate goal: of creating a space to inspire thought and learning.

“Historic England has had a really constructive consultation with the British Library throughout. The way it has been listed celebrates its qualities, and points out just what does make it special. This will enable it to go on flourishing as a dynamic public building, in which appropriate change is welcomed.

“It joins a select group of other listed post-war public libraries on the National Heritage List for England. Even in today’s digital age, there is a clear future for these buildings. They illustrate a wide range of architectural styles, and together represent the very best in public architecture.”

Chief Executive of the British Library, Roly Keating, said: “We are delighted that Colin St John Wilson’s courageous and visionary design for the British Library’s London building has been recognised by a listing at the highest level.  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.

The building holds a prominent location on London’s Euston Road and shaped the emerging character of the surrounding area of north-central London as a place of collaborative research and study – referred to now as the Knowledge Quarter*. The listing coincides with seven libraries from across the UK that have been awarded Grade II status. These are: Suffolk Record Office, Suffolk (1963-5, Donald McMorran), Bebington Central Library, The Wirral (1967-71, Paterson, Macauley and Owens), Milton Keynes Central Library, Milton Keynes (1979-81, Buckinghamshire County Council architects), Chandler’s Ford Library, Eastleigh, Hampshire (1981-2, Hampshire County Council architect Colin Stansfield Smith), West Sussex Library, West Sussex (1965-6, county architect F R Steele) Bourne Hall Library & Social Centre, Epsom, Surrey (1967-70, A.G. Sheppard Fidler and Associates), Lillington Library, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire  (1959-60, Henry Fedeski)

Commenting on all eight listings, Tracey Crouch said: “Libraries are the cornerstones of the communities they serve. They act as meeting places, provide areas to learn and are a credit to the volunteers at the heart and soul of the service. Many of these libraries have stood proudly in their communities for more than 50 years and I am thrilled that these institutions can be admired for many years to come.”