Peckham Library – Still a ‘Stirling’ Job?

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Peckham Library, London

Will Alsop

2000, Stirling Prize Winner

If you can read, you will know this building is a Library, and if you can’t read you might not need to know about this building anyway. This is Will Alsop’s Stirling Prize winning Peckham Library in the London Borough of Southwark. Built in 2000, maybe it is time to see how the building has stood the test of time, does it still attract the community in a time when the role of the library is changing in architecture to become a resource for technological learning.

The building is no-doubt an icon in the area, being in the neighbouring streets the building is unavoidable to the eye as its oxidised copper-green mass appears just over the houses and shops close by. As the building rose, elevated above the ground to free public space on the ground floor, so did the profile of Peckham, it attracted thousands of visitors to the library and put culture as pride of place in the area.

The brief for Alsop from Southwark council was to ‘…create a building of architectural merit that would bring prestige to the borough and a welcome psychological boost to the area’.

Arguably it has achieved this as Peckham Library figures for 2013 suggested that it received 457,512 visitors, three times it’s expected target, and membership at Peckham is greater than the average for the borough in all age groups.

The challenge this library really faces today comes from the crossroads at which all libraries currently sit. An institutional evolution is required to modernise these spaces for the needs of changing communities, as funds are cut and advances in technology threaten the traditional role in the community, new libraries will have o be adaptive. This adaptive nature is a credit that could be awarded to the building; a recent £258,000 refurbishment began to address this demand; adding extra furniture, introducing self-service machines and upgrading IT services.

The shortfall of the project is the space around the building, the public space created by the elevated mass is in principle a good idea, but the orientation of the building and its massive cantilevered structure does not serve well the dingy square it overshadows. I visited the building on a cold windy day, so it is possible my impression of being outside is biased, but the space around the building wasn’t being inhabited by anyone, nor was their particular evidence that it ever is. It had a feeling more of a way-through than a public square to take your time or of bustling activity.

The raised mass offers some presence to the building as I alluded to earlier but it does also achieve other advantages apparent when inside. Access was a criticism levelled at Alsop when the building was first built, but there are of course lifts to address that problem and the stairs actually offer great views over London as you climb higher, making the building a viewing tower spectacle as well.

Overall, the building has achieved its original aim and helped to raise Peckham’s profile; attracting visitors and giving vital facilities to the community that has over the years been under-served. It continues to have great attendance and is an example of how iconic architecture can help lift expectations, not in an “architecture saves the day” kind of way, rather in a “build it and they will come” kind of way. Adapt with the times and they will continue to.

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