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Peckham Library isn’t afraid to announce to the world that it’s a library. Nick Johnson is a big fan of Alsop’s attitude that architecture should be fun and exciting.

11 Mar 2005

by Nick Johnson

I’m not sure I like architecture all that much. Buildings don’t make a great showing in my iconography, which is embarrassingly full of cars and canal boats. However, I’m developing strong feelings for Park Hill estate in Sheffield, that Urban Splash recently won the competition to regenerate. I was at University in Sheffield and the thousand or so flats stacked up on the hill had a huge impact on me and on the city. They became a symbol of Sheffield’s decline. If we can help turn them into a positive image for the city, we’ll have done something that I believe it is the privilege and responsibility of architects and developers to achieve: we’ll have made a difference.

That’s why my favourite building is Peckham Library. The building is by Alsop Architects, and it won the Stirling Prize for Building of the Year, in 2000. Will Alsop and his design director and project architect at the time, Christophe Egret, approach architecture in ways uncommon among their peers. Alsop and Egret think that buildings should excite. They think they should be fun. They think they should stand out, and raise a smile. Very few architects seem to have these ambitions for their buildings. They speak of “beauty” or “vision” or “imagination” or “creative solution”, but “fun” is not a word in common architectural parlance. Alsop uses it all the time.

Peckham isn’t frightened to be a library. The lettering on the roof fixes that. Here are all the non-literary add-ons that libraries properly adopt to keep abreast of technology, but the hierarchy here is still with books. You may be shushed in the stacks, but Alsop’s library shouts its presence on the street. Peckham library is only too pleased to distract you from life’s mundanities. The library takes its place in the new square by shouldering its way on to it. It takes the form of the letter ‘L’, all be it inverted. Alsop talks of “maximalism”, of buildings that cannot be ignored. You get the feeling at Peckham that the Library is a “must visit”, that it is inclusive, and that it represents some sort of refuge, pavilion or club.

It seems to me that the best architecture submits to purpose. What is the point of a public library if it is not well used; and if it is to be well used shouldn’t it be robust and democratic? Might it not have an aesthetic of its own invention? Anti-Alsopians argue he strives too much, that he blurts out buildings like architectural tourettes. I would argue that part of what makes Alsop an architect of the present day is his lack of received architectural manner. He’s a bit of a kid on the street. And he’s not precious about his buildings being photographed with people actually using them. In fact, he prefers it that way.

Brighton’s acclaimed new Jubilee Library has just opened, while Rogers’ new central library for Birmingham is stalled. David Adjaye is putting up ‘ideas shops’ in Tower Hamlets. At Peckham Library Will Alsop and Christophe Egret refreshed our thinking about ‘do-you-good’ civic buildings. Walk in, below the canopy overhang, and you know you’ve entered a building you’re now part of. When you enter Peckham Library you want to be a member, You want to join the club. That’s Alsop. He’s clubbable. And at Peckham Library, you want to join the club of which he was a founder member.

Nick Johnson is director of development
at Urban Splash

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