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The future for arts and science districts - our Lambeth Palace Library report part 1

Above: view from Lambeth Palace Library towards St Thomas' Hospital Medical School, Palace of Westminster and the Thames

Future Cities Forum was delighted to hold its 'Arts and Science Districts' discussion event at Lambeth Palace Library in London this May. The new library building designed by Wright & Wright Architects sits at one end of the Archbishop of Canterbury's garden and with its eight-storey tower, gives spectacular views over the Houses of Parliament and the science district of St Thomas' Hospital and Evelina London.

The forum looked at best practice for sustainable arts and science districts as well as the value of library collections for the benefit of communities as well as heritage for the future tourism economy.

The Chief Executive of Evelina London, Dr Sara Hanna, stated that the hospital was keen to become more connected as a neighbour to Lambeth Palace Library, for the benefit of its patients and families and also in partnership with its expansion plans.

However, the discussion started with Librarian and Archivist, Giles Mandelbrote, describing how the world-class collection of written material and objects came about:

'The collection has been here for 400 years. The palace was built in London rather than Canterbury because it was thought to be the best place for its headquarters. The site chosen was in the middle of a marsh but across from Westminster, when the river was considered the quickest and safest way of getting around London in the middle ages. It also meant that it was at the centre of power and was involved in government and patronage. The Library was founded in 1610 in response to the Reformation, a precarious time and to act as a source of material for the religious wars in the form of preaching and writing. So it was an institutional collection for archbishops and staff and limited public and it has continued to this day. It encompasses world class manuscripts and illuminated medieval manuscripts from the dissolution of the monasteries. It is the official archive for the international Church of England and belongs to the church commissioners as do the buildings. The reason for the investment in the new building was to preserve the collections.'

Giles was asked about the importance of the collections today. Back in 2014 Arts Council England's research pointed to the economic contribution that public libraries make to the UK, that of the maintenance of mental and physical wellbeing, social inclusivity and cohesion of communities. Did Giles think that the new building would encourage more visitors or be viewed as an intimidating fortress?

'The aim of the new buildings' he said' 'is to open up the collection. The old buildings made public access more difficult. Yes people would come and go but the free flowing movement of visitors was challenging along with security concerns. People had to be rather managed through our exhibitions. The opportunity now with its position on the road is to encourage anyone to walk in and with a more accessible exhibition space.'

The red bricks used in the building of the new library echo the colour of the original palace. The idea was to build upwards rather than underground to withstand flood risk and is set within the highly sensitive historic Grade l listed site, with its negligible consumption of energy, low carbon emissions and a strategy of low maintenance. Half the Library's energy requirements are generated by photovoltaic panels on the roof, while rainwater is sustainably channelled into a new pond in the Archbishop's garden encouraging biodiversity.

Stephen Smith, Partner at Wright & Wright Architects, explained that the starting point for designing the new library buildings was the collection:

'That was at the heart of the design, we had to protect the collection that was being kept in awful conditions but also with the consideration of opening the collections up. There was a tension between opening up and keeping something secure. We wanted to bring the building to the street, and once you enter have an important connection to the garden. We have worked with Evelina London to make sure it is a place that patients and families can come to from across the road and find quiet. Quiet spaces are important to create within our cities. We also wanted to re-instate that important connection to Westminster, the connection between church and state.'

Stephen also talked about the larger masterplan of the area:

'This part of London has its urban challenges but we should be grateful that Lambeth Council understood the importance of connecting to the river and creating a cultural and science connection to the hospital and back to Waterloo Station. The area around the station is depressing and the Council was open to ideas with science and culture coming together.'

Evelina London's Chief Executive, Dr Hanna joined the conversation saying:

'We must take this as an opportunity but quite a few of us at the hospital wouldn't know what the building was and our families I think might feel quite intimidated and that's a missed opportunity. When I came into the building and saw the garden at the back I had a positive impression. Our families come and go at the hospital but there are groups of children who spend many months there and I for one think I have spent more time at the hospital than at home for the last 20 years. There is work to do in building a strong connection to the library and at the moment it is not obvious that we are neighbours'

Dr Hanna was asked whether there was the intention of building awareness of the facility, as the idea of wellbeing and health benefits from culture and nature are growing in traditional hospital settings:

'Yes, I think it is important to think what we can do to benefit our community and what other things are on the horizon. Since we moved into the current building, we have constantly run out of space and we need to grow so our partnerships with our neighbours are very important if we are to achieve our ambitions. We are currently resourcing our expansion plans and with understanding from our patients and stakeholders. That is where the money will go, but as you have seen on the news this morning, expanding or creating new hospital buildings is very difficult.'

Entrance to Lambeth Palace Library


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