Built to last 400 years … the New Library for Magdalene College by Níall McLaughlin. Photograph: Nick Kane
This tall-chimneyed, Tudor-inspired book lovers’ haven in Cambridge, which has river vistas and fresh air within, is a deserving recipient of the RIBA Stirling medal
Magdalene College in Cambridge has won the RIBA Stirling award for best new building in the UK for a library that is intended to survive for another four centuries, 600 years after it was established as a dormitory for Benedictine student monks.
Magdalene’s new structure has a classic aura when placed next to the 17th-century Pepys Library, which it replaces with its claustrophobic study areas. With a series of towering brick chimneys and pitched gables fronting on to the fellows’ garden, it seems as if it may have time-traveled from the college’s Tudor history, but through a stripped-down, modernist lens. The interior expands as a 3D lattice of bookcases and cozy reading nooks, while its redbrick walls and projecting oak bay windows pay homage to the medieval college courts.
A lattice of bookshelves … inside the Stirling prize-winning library. Photograph: Nick Kane
The college won this year’s Royal Institute of British Architects prize over a competition that included an arts and community center, a primary school, an office building, a housing development, and a college for further study.
The library is a flawlessly constructed structure with load-bearing brick walls, cross-laminated timber flooring, and massive glulam wooden beams. Everything you can see in the building is working as it should. There isn’t any paper-thin cladding, which is so common in modern architecture. This is strong, long-lasting material. Until at least 2400.
The head of the Stirling award jury, RIBA president Simon Allford, said that “the overarching commitment to build something that will stand the test of time can be felt in every material and detail, and from every viewpoint.” The best example of a long-term structure may be found here.
Catering to all tastes, from extrovert to recluse … The building provides a variety of reading and working spaces. Photograph: Nick Kane
It is the creation of Nall McLaughlin, an Irish architect with a base in London who has previously made three shortlists for the prize. With his oval stone chapel for Ripon College Cuddesdon, close to Oxford, he entered the list in 2013. In 2015, he returned with a block of biscuit-colored brick apartments for Peabody in east London. In 2018, he returned with an ornate lecture hall for Worcester College in Oxford. Each one demonstrates McLaughlin’s superb ability to create structures that are respectful of their environment without resorting to pastiche and are totally of their period. He has constructed or is now working on 15 projects for the prestigious Oxbridge universities thanks to this talent. The Magdalene Library is his finest work to date.
The structure has been referred to by McLaughlin as “a thicket of books.” Students enter a triple-height room where they find a large group of brick columns supporting a branching structure of wooden shelves and decks that climb up into a learning canopy over an art museum and archive. A recurring module of square rooms generates a range of reading and working places in this sylvan building.
There is a long communal table that resembles a medieval mead hall as well as more solitary cubby holes tucked away in corners, all of which are surrounded by book-lined walls. From extrovert to introvert, it offers something for everyone. Even one workstation, which is visible from all sides, extends straight out into the center of the triple-height vacuum. For the student who wants everyone to know they are studying, it is referred to as the “prima donna desk.”
According to deputy librarian Tom Sykes, “students come to the library so they can work separately but together.” “Watching others work may be inspiring, but you also need to be able to focus or hide. There is something for everyone in this building since it offers such a tremendous variety of rooms.
The structure is bathed in daylight that enters via a grid of vaulted rooftop lanterns, giving the impression that it is a light-filled pavilion in a garden with views of the old yew trees. The brick chimneys act as natural ventilation, drawing in fresh air via arrow-slit ventilation flaps by the window seats, which open to see the river beyond.
Sylvan structure … a ceiling in the library. Photograph: Nick Kane
After receiving the award, McLaughlin was eager to acknowledge the group effort. He said, “Many hands and many thoughts went into building the library. By starting and overseeing the initiative, the institution established the potential for success. The selection of architects, consultants, contractors, and artisans was handled carefully. Our team received assistance and had its judgment vigorously questioned throughout the development process.
The Latin phrase “faber sum” (I am a craftsman), which is etched on a plaque near the entryway, feels appropriate since it recognizes the talent of the numerous artists who contributed to the creation of this magical area.