Richard Lofthouse tours Magdalen’s new library as the freshers come up for a new academic year


The former New Library is framed by the new design below itThe former New Library is framed by the new design below it

By Dr Richard Lofthouse

Students and fellows have accessed Magdalen’s new library since February, and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, performed a formal opening in May. Yet the full completion of the £10.5 million Longwall Library project is only unfolding now, as the new academic year begins. Magdalen freshers have a treat in store, with the return in June to the college of roughly 80,000 volumes that had been stored by the Bodleian Library while the building work was underway.The Prince met Lord Patten of Barnes, the Chancellor of the University, at MagdalenThe Prince met Lord Patten of Barnesthe Chancellor of the Universityat Magdalen for the Library opening

In fact the storage of those books is an intriguing narrative on its own. Fellow Librarian Dr Christine Ferdinand explains that every single volume had to be re-barcoded by a team of paid students and other volunteers. ‘Every one of us, me included, tried to do an hour a day – these little efforts all added up and we got there in the end.’ The books were then taken away to Bodley’s off-site storage facility in Swindon. It sounds drastic but as an example of technology and inter-library cooperation, it worked flawlessly. “The Bodley did a fantastic job for us. Anyone [at Magdalen] could order a college book until 7.30pm. It would be in front of them first thing the next morning – having been driven in from Swindon.”Up in the rafters of the former New Library - a perfect place to work on that essayUp in the rafters of the former New Library - a perfect place to work on that essay

The Longwall Library, so-called because it sits immediately below the long wall that gives name to the street where incessant and fuming traffic is diverted off the southern end of the High, combines a part-excavated, lower ground floor new building with a complete transformation of the pre-existing New Library designed by J.C. Buckler. The New Library (as it was called) was formerly the Magdalen College School that originally opened in 1851 and was later converted to library use in the early 1930s by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The New Library was opened by the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, in 1932. It sits right on the corner of the High Street and Longwall Street, looking to the untutored eye exactly like a college chapel, with its tall, nod-to-gothic steeply gabled roof and ecclesiastical windows.The Longwall Library affords long views such as this one, ending in an acer tree (Japanese maple) positioned outsideThe Longwall Library affords long views such as this one, ending in an acer tree (Japanese maple) positioned outside

The Longwall Library connects to the old building via an integrated stairwell, while a third dimension consists of a completely new quadrangle design that goes completely away from the rather stiff tradition of being hunted down by a college porter if you walked on the grass. Architect Clare Wright MBE, co-founder with her husband and partner Sandy Wright of Wright & Wright, the principal architects of the development with partner Stephen Smith , notes that the idea was to create an extended ‘room’ that happens to be outside. With lots of miniature squares and seating spaces, she adds, “the approach to the library is a bit of a suntrap, it’s wifi-enabled, and it allows disabled access.”

The overall project has taken the best part of a decade and involved significant archaeological work before the site could be built on. A medieval cemetery was encountered that pre-dated the founding of the college in 1448. 113 skeletons were exhumed. Numerous wooden combs and wig curlers belonging to an eighteenth century wig-maker were recovered, plus the remnants of a forge that has given rise to speculation that Absolon’s iron poker in Chaucer’s second Canterbury Tale, ‘The Miller’s Tale,’ which is bawdy and involves Oxford, may have been manufactured there.The newly worked Longwall Quad, viewed from the Buckle building, formerly the New LibraryThe newly worked Longwall Quad, viewed from the Buckle building, formerly the New Library

The transformation of the Buckle building is a piece of genius. On a tight budget, Gilbert Scott somewhat wrecked it by throwing up a second storey that bisected the beautiful windows. That’s all gone and the damaged stonework repaired. Russian-doll like, what you now get is a three-storey, oak-clad tower of books and desks within the skin of the original structure, thus bringing function and grace while still restoring –visually and spatially – the original. New sound proofing and insulation has brilliantly suppressed the roaring traffic and improved building performance, and the roof no longer leaks and has been beautifully re-clad in Cotswold stone slates.

Making our way back down and across to the new, ‘burrowed’  Longwall Library, Ferdinand notes that before the project began, “we had the worst seats-to-students ratio of all the colleges in Oxbridge.” The new library adds 120 seats, but what is most impressive is how lovely they are. For a lower groundfloor building you might be thinking basement dig-out, but this is not what you encounter. True, there are subterranean drainage sites to take account of Oxford’s very high water table, and the building itself is water proofed in case one day there is an epic flood. But the new library is full of rooflights while students look out across the quad or take advantage of long views that end in Japanese maple trees positioned just outside by the gardeners. The buildings are cleverly heated and cooled using natural methods and avoiding costly and ugly air conditioning units, while a borehole has been dug and can be accessed for greater levels of coolness should climate change advance in the coming years.Dr Christine Ferdinand, Fellow Librarian at MagdalenDr Christine Ferdinand, Fellow Librarian at Magdalen

The numerous skylights and quadrangle views send shafts of sun across magnificent white oak veneers, while sturdy brushed steel lamp housings designed by the architects grace each desk. Clipsham stone facings add to an overall ambience of lightness and durability.The principal architects for the project, from left: Stephen Smith, Sandy Wright and Clare WrightThe principal architects, from left: Stephen Smith, Sandy Wright and Clare Wright

Apparently the typical plate glass office block thrown up in London or Dubai these days, has a real working life of just 25 years, by which time the assumption is that it will be replaced or gutted. This is why Clare and Sandy Wright, with colleague and partner Stephen Smith, were so happy to work on a project for Magdalen, following other commissions including Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. ‘Oxbridge colleges seek to a unique degree to preserve the historical environment and aspire to do good [architectural] work,’ says Clare. Throughout this particular project, she says that the guiding light was people. The library is now full of remarkably sympathetic and welcoming study spaces, around which the newly returned books glint and gleam their colourful spines in the afternoon sunlight. With the passing of time it may well be this emphasis on the community of users, as well as the in-context spatial and physical sympathy of the project within Longwall Quad, that will be most appreciated by future generations of users.

Dr Richard Lofthouse is the editor of Oxford Today

Images: Richard Lofthouse, Oxford University Images


By Dominic Berry

"Gilbert Scott somewhat wrecked it by throwing up a second storey that bisected the beautiful windows. That’s all gone..." Yet in your photo, there is still an upper storey bisecting the windows. It would be good to know what has actually been done to the interior.

As for all those jagged walls and steps on what used to be the lawn, you say that this is "a completely new quadrangle design that goes completely away from the rather stiff tradition of being hunted down by a college porter if you walked on the grass". I'd rather have lawns and porters, even the tradition is "still".

Generally it all looks very successful, and I hope the college is pleased with what it has commissioned.

By John Haffenden

As a Visiting Fellow nearly twenty years ago, I used to find it difficult to find a place to work in peace and comfort in the library. This is a magnificent improvement, and I can't wait to visit it in person. The terracing and steps do look fussy at the moment; but they merely need to weather for a hundred years. Congratulations to everyone involved, most especially the remarkable and indefatigable Christine Ferdinand.

By Peter Hulse

It's not only Oxbridge colleges that design for long life. I believe the specification for Liverpool Cathedral called for a 500-year life without needing major work doing.

By Chris Miller

@Dominic (I am not an architect :) the new building is essentially a free standing structure within the old walls. So although there is a floor level bisecting the windows, it makes no contact with them (there's a gap of several inches).