A turn-up for the books: restoring Liverpool library
Restoration of the Liverpool Central Library required a careful marriage of new build with the original listed Victorian building and various extensions added over the years. Stephen Cousins reports.
Refurbishing a 19th Century library to meet the standards of a 21st century public library is no easy task, but what happens when that building is also Grade II* listed and sits within a UNESCO World Heritage site? Given the many constraints, how do you open the building up to the public without compromising historic features? And what happens to your construction programme when the site is located next to a building housing a priceless collection of Egyptian artefacts that’s sensitive to even the slightest vibration?
These problems have all been faced during the £54m restoration of the new Liverpool Central Library, but it’s only now, in the closing stages of construction, that the team building it will find out if they have made it work.
The library is located in the city’s Cultural Quarter on William Brown Street, an area dominated by several neo-classical buildings including the Walker Art Gallery and the world famous Grade I-listed St George’s Hall.
It comprises a number of buildings, erected as the library expanded over the decades. The first, the William Brown Library and Museum, completed in 1860, stretches along the main William Brown Street frontage and is shared with the city’s museum, World Museum Liverpool. In 1875, this was extended on the eastern side to create the Picton Reading Room, designed by Cornelius Sherlock to mirror the rotunda of the British Museum in London. Then, in 1906, the Hornby Library was added to the north. All three buildings are Grade II*-listed and built in the neo-classical style.
Severe bombing during the Second World War meant that much of the William Brown Library and Museum was destroyed, apart from the facade, which still stands, and this was rebuilt and extended in the 1950s and 1970s.
The new archive/repository
Plans to restore the library date back to the early 2000s when a complete refurbishment was proposed, but the council struggled to find a builder willing to undertake the complicated remodelling and the project was mothballed. A return to the drawing board resulted in the current, more ambitious PFI project, which started on site in November 2010 and involves both the restoration and partial remodelling of all the Grade II* listed buildings, plus the demolition of the 1950s and 1970s structures to create a new building comprising a public library, cafe, full-height atrium and roof terrace.
A purpose-built climate-controlled repository is also being built to the rear, to provide storage for the Liverpool Record Office where 14km of archives and some of the city’s most historic treasures from the last 800 years will be housed in a cutting-edge airtight and humidity-controlled environment.
The project is being built for client Liverpool City Council under a 27-year PFI contract awarded to the Inspire Partnership, a joint venture between International Public Partnerships, Shepherd Construction, architect Austin-Smith:Lord and facilities management services provider Cofely. A PFI is unusual for a public library, but in 2008, when the financial crisis hit and the project was going out to tender, this was seen as the best means of securing funding.
Steven Gerard, project manager at Shepherd, says the nature of the PFI effectively put the firm in the position of a negotiator between different project parties: “There was a tug of war between the end user, Liverpool Library Services and the council, who wanted grandeur, and the FM team, who wanted to extend the life of parts and materials as much as possible.”
Austin-Smith:Lord’s resulting design aims to strike a balance between a painstakingly authentic restoration of the library’s original imposing architecture and the introduction of bold and unashamedly contemporary spaces characterised by white walls, sweeping curves and uninterrupted sight lines, as Alison Pownell, architect at Austin-Smith:Lord, explains: “The Picton Library reading room very much engenders the traditional idea of a library as a quiet and austere place for study, but the modern building next door is very open and light and designed to be both grand and welcoming, so it doesn’t feel unfamiliar to the regular public. To some extent there is a juxtaposition between the past and the present,” she says.
This contrast will be most apparent as visitors enter through the new small slot entrance cut into the imposing 1.2m-thick walls of the neo-classical facade. Inside, they are confronted by a full-height atrium space, which sweeps upwards and away from the entrance, cutting through the five new library floors as it rises toward a ribbed skylight dome. The atrium is reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York and floods the ground floor with light, encouraging visitors to move into the building and explore the upper levels.
But there is also a mirroring of old and new. The atrium rooflight, for example, references the oculus at the centre of the Picton reading room’s domed roof, while the oval floorplates of the new building reflect the Picton’s circular plan.
Restoring the Picton Room ceiling
Restoring the original fabric of the library’s Grade ll* listed sections, from the external stonework to the internal plaster mouldings, fixtures and bookcases, involved seeking numerous planning consents for hundreds of historic details, each of which had to be recorded by Shepherd and historic works specialist William Anelay, and then signed off by the council’s conservation officer.
“The conservation ethos was: if it’s not a danger to the structure or likely to create problems in future, it has to be retained,” says Shepherd’s Gerard. “Hence many areas of the building resemble a patchwork of old and new. For the details that needed restoration, consents had to be signed off, which meant getting a standard detail drawn by the architect or William Anelay and submitting it to Liverpool’s conservation officer and planning officer. If they gave the go ahead, a sample was made, which was then either approved or reworked and eventually signed off. It was a very drawn out process,” he adds.
This painstaking attention to detail can be seen in the many bottle-shaped stone balusters that support the external balustrade surrounding the Picton Library, each of which comprise three separate elements that had to be sampled and signed off.
Inside, the Picton reading room presents visitors with a masterclass in restoration. The top of the stone colonnade surrounding the room features many exquisite details including a repeated corbel pattern with 15 liver birds incorporated into the design, timber book cases lining the walls of the mezzanine level have been repaired and even the original radiators and their timber enclosures have been recreated to match the original designs.
Attention to detail is such that a material particle analysis was carried out to determine the original 1872 paint scheme — layered over several times during previous refurbishments — and recreate the blue, white and red colours using modern paints.
“When you walk into the Picton Library reading room you might think it has simply had a nice refurbishment, but the results are close to a 100% accurate to what the Edwardians would have seen,” says Gerard.
Perhaps Shepherd’s biggest challenge was achieving the building’s sensitive restoration whilst incorporating and concealing the many services and other features expected of a 21st Century library. The Hornby Library and Oak Room, closed to the public for many years, will now be re-opened, which meant creating new entrances and knocking through certain existing walls to allow visitors to access from other areas of the library; installing security systems including access controls and CCTV to protect the many valuable books on display; plus other environmental and M&E systems.
Second floor plan
1. Atrium within main library
2. South light well
3. Picton library reading room
4. Hornby library
5. Picton stack
6. New archive building
7. Clayton Stack
Sometimes, this strategy meant making some tough decisions, such as when, late in the design, Shepherd discovered that the plaster-boarded ceiling of the corridor running around the outside of the Picton reading room hid a beautiful and ornate barrel vault.
“We knew there was a void underneath and had already designed M&E services to run through it, but we had no knowledge of the barrel vault. Unfortunately, the M&E is fundamental to the building’s operation and there was no alternative route, so the vaulted ceiling will have to remain concealed in the finished building,” says Gerard.
Other changes required less consideration, such as the decision to demolish the entire 1950s and 1970s buildings, whose very low ceiling heights and multiple changes in level made them unsuitable for a contemporary library. “This made it reasonably easy to draw a line as to what structures should be removed and what should be retained,” says Austin-Smith:Lord’s Pownell.
Much more onerous was the demolition of these buildings, which had to be carried out in accordance with a strict vibration monitoring protocol developed to protect the valuable collections of artefacts, paintings and sculptures in the neighbouring World Museum Liverpool and Walker Art Gallery buildings.
With no accepted British standards or guidance for this type of monitoring, a professor of acoustics from Liverpool University was called in. He recommended that several seismographs linked to computers be installed in the two neighbouring buildings. If a vibration limit was triggered, the computer would send text messages to the neighbouring buildings, the council and Shepherd’s construction manager and work was suspended until the cause of the vibration was investigated.
The atrium to the restored library entrance takes shape
To minimise possible disturbance during the demolition, Shepherd used computer-controlled Brokk demolition equipment and a long-reach excavator fitted with a rotating pulveriser to carefully separate the side walls of the library from the adjoining buildings, so that the rest of the demolition could be carried out in relative isolation.
“Unfortunately, the vibration trigger was probably set too low and there have been hundreds of triggers throughout the project, which disrupted work to the extent that we had to frequently liaise with client team over course of the first couple of months,” says Gerard. “However, the client has gained an understanding and trust that Shepherd were not doing anything dangerous or outside of our method statement and work has always been able to continue.” Data from this exercise is being collated to capture best practice for use on future projects.
As work progresses ahead of its expected completion towards the end of the year and re-opening in April 2013, there’s already a sense that the architect’s aspiration to create contemporary spaces that both complement and contradict the existing architecture has been successful.
This is most apparent in the newly created children’s library in the basement level of the Picton Library. Previously closed to the public, this sunken, circular amphitheatre-like space will retain many of its unique features, which include ornate architraving, steel ceiling trusses and a tiered layout, but it has also been enlivened with a new performance stage, disabled access ramps that swirl down towards the centre, modern ICT stations and feature lighting.
“Liverpool’s head of library services had the vision that this country’s libraries are missing an entire demographic of people, and inventive, exciting spaces like this are what can help attract them back,” concludes Gerard.
Dome and dry
Repairs to the domed roof of the Picton Library over the years had created a patchwork of zinc, bits of lead, Georgian wiring and pieces of perspex covering holes in the glazed oculus.
To restore the roof and ceiling in its entirety, a huge 36m-wide trussed tent structure was installed, designed to span the Picton Library building and allow the roof to be dismantled and repaired without work being affected by the elements. The bespoke tent structure is thought to have been one of the largest in Europe, and according to Gerard, was an “amazing feat of engineering”.
The problem was that the scaffolding needed to create the support for the tent structure had to be tied in to the existing buildings to provide support, but listing consents made it near impossible to find appropriate locations to land tubes or strut bars.
“On a typical build you might fix into a concrete column or wall, but here we had 1872-listed stone,” says Gerard. “It meant we were limited to much fewer fixing locations that each one had to be agreed with the conservation officer and the neighbouring buildings. It meant scaffolding provider HT Scaffolding had to devise a very elaborate and technical design for the temporary works.”
Once the scaffold was up, the Haki 750 deep beam roll-out roofing was moved into position on wheels, and the restoration was carried out unimpeded.
The tent structure covering the Picton Library’s domed roof is thought to be one of the largest in Europe when it was erected.