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The Central Library

Bristol, Central Library

In 1613 Robert Redwood gave the Corporation his lodge in the Marsh (now King Street) for use as a library; and Dr. Tobias Matthew, Bristolian-born Archbishop of York, donated the core of a book collection. It was the second earliest public library in England. The lodge was rebuilt c.1740 but by 1900 was wholly inadequate. In 1901 Vincent Stuckey Lean bequeathed £50,000 for a new building. The architectural competition was won by the firm of H. Percy Adams with designs by his assistant Charles Holden (1875-1960). Opened in 1906 and costing £30,000, it differs relatively little from the 1902 competition designs. It shows Holden's precocious maturity at just 27, gaining him a partnership in the firm. His education in the 19th century tradition of applied styles is evident (neo-TudorGlossary Term without, ClassicalGlossary Term within); and the interiors show little real movement towards ModernismGlossary Term. Why, then, is it so significant in the developing British Modern Movement? Firstly, as Pevsner says, the styles are used with a "freedom instigated by Mackintosh's Glasgow Art School" - juxtaposed, stripped down and stylised. Secondly, for the innovative exterior composition and handling of volume and mass, especially the south and east facades.

The entrance vestibule and staircase tower are at the east end, three floors of public spaces to the north, with offices and storage to the south on five floors, taking advantage of the sloping site. There is a central lightGlossary Term well, and glass panels are set in some floors to illuminate the lower levels. The budget was not extravagant for a building of this size and complexity. Holden overcame this by using brick on steel framing, with facings of Bath stone. Internal ornament is kept to a minimum, and much is executed in plaster; but quality is never skimped. All the carpentry and furniture was designed by Holden and executed in durable teak, and the well-known London craftsman William Aumonier did most of the stone carving.

Bristol, Central Library

The most influential element was the composition of the SOUTH AND EAST FACADES. Although the south approach was relatively unimportant, Holden held to the Arts and CraftsGlossary Term principal of equal attention to back and front. Bold chimneystacks and framing towers establish the dominant verticals, and the central arched and buttressed bays echo the north front. There is a complex play of projection and recession both here and on the high blank east walls, reminiscent of the library wing of Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art (1906-9) and Hill House, Helensburgh (also designed in 1902). Its stair turret in the re-entrant angle is strikingly similar, but one hesitates to claim precedence for Bristol, since Mackintosh had rehearsed the major compositional elements at Windyhill, Kilmalcolm by 1901. Rather, Holden draws on the same set of ideas - mathematical logic, spatial manipulation and Arts & Crafts respect for locale - while synthesising a new and infinitely pleasing design.