The library of Babel: how to extend a timewarped masterpiece.

The London Library is as English an institution as you could possibly imagine. It is enormous – the largest private subscription library in the world – and its roll-call of members and officers is a lineage of literary greats from Carlyle and Dickens via T.S. Eliot to Sir Tom Stoppard, its current president. But you wouldn’t know where it was, if someone hadn’t tipped you the wink. Like some discreet gentlemen’s valet, it materialises only when you need it. Now it is about to spend £25m on its biggest rebuild for over a century. And once that’s done, it will still be all but invisible.

This project is the very opposite of look-at-me signature architecture. Particularly as the architects in question, Haworth Tompkins, like the existing shabby labyrinth of a building so much that they are desperate to keep it that way as much as possible. “It’s like knitting with a great big tangle of string, and trying to get some kind of pattern out of it,” says Graham Haworth as we tour the reading rooms and bookstacks and clamber across the rooftop fire escapes. His firm is known for its ability to creatively unpick such places, being responsible for the rebuilt Royal Court Theatre and the current Young Vic development. It’s the decades of grime and accumulation of eccentric signs and notices he likes, along with the functional honesty of the Victorian stacks – a place worthy of Borges – where you can stare down through cast-iron gratings into what seems like the bowels of the earth. Plenty of people in the library use laptops, but somehow the place still has an aura of gaslight about it.

You could easily set a corny murder mystery in the London Library with its many cul-de-sacs and ante-rooms, its baffling layout and its readers who tend to look like either neurotic academics (probably true) or central-casting spies (less likely). Indeed, Haworth has taken to including Agatha Christie in his drawings (she’s stealing a book), along with an assortment of others including national literary treasure Alan Bennett and the late Poet Laureate and architecture enthusiast Sir John Betjeman – the latter with an improbable mobile phone clamped to his ear. A Blériot monoplane also swoops across the roofscape in one drawing. It’s clear that Haworth has been infected by the library’s eccentricity bug. But the task in hand is no joke.

The Library is a tightly-packed, very variable collection of interlinked buildings sheltering behind a modest 1890s façade in one corner of St. James’ Square. Since it amasses 8,000 new volumes each year, it exists in a state of perpetual space crisis. Founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841, it was completely rebuilt on its present site at the end of the 1890s. Since then it has been in the business of commandeering adjacent buildings and inserting new ones. Last year it bought itself yet more elbow-room in the form of a late 1970s office block on its north side, right next to the fast-appearing steel skeleton of the White Cube’s new West End contemporary art gallery. Haworth Tompkins’ task is to make sense of this century of sublime accretive mess, adding yet more space and some rather splendid new facilities, such as a positively Olympian rooftop reading-room, high among the chimneypots. Their mission is to give the Library enough expansion space for a further 25 years. This means the biggest rebuild for 110 years.

The large wooden model that Haworth has made of the library is like some fiendish 3D puzzle. The architectural moves he makes are logical enough – improving the circulation around an enlarged central lightwell, extending the bookstacks and improving the air quality, providing twice as much reading-room space, removing some of the silted-up clutter of the place to give it back the clarity apparent in archive photographs. Haworth’s engineers, Price and Myers, expect the building to rise out of the ground slightly as the colossal weight of books is removed, and to settle back down again once they are replaced. Luckily, the Victorian bookstacks are so well-built that they can take the weight of three new floors on top.

Haworth Tompkins’ new insertions are clearly new – no Victorian pastiche here. The new rooftop lantern of a reading room in particular – the best of all possible ivory towers – is hugely enticing. Building all this, however, is not so much a matter of knitting as of keyhole surgery. All the materials will have to be lifted in and out by tower crane. The whole place, with its million-plus volumes, will be emptied for around 15 months, probably starting in 2007, to allow the work to happen. But before that, Haworth will have set up an interim library in the recently-acquired block in Mason’s Yard next door. This, cheek by jowl with the White Cube, will be an intriguing cultural collision, and one that will continue: the re-fettled librry, once complete, will continue to have an entrance from this hitherto secretive London backyard.

Everyone hopes to find books they did not know they had. Apparently members are as likely to absent-mindedly leave their own stuff there as they are to lose the library’s volumes. But Haworth hopes that one essential part of the library’s character will remain: its layers of grimy history. Deep in the bookstacks, he shows me a typewritten paper notice pasted on the wall. It dates from the Blitz, and tells members what an air-raid siren sounds like and where to shelter when it sounds (just as well, since the place suffered a direct hit at one point). The notice has Polish grafitti on it, probably from the same time. “We have got to make sure we keep this,” says Haworth. And I think he will.

Text © Hugh Pearman, images courtesy of Haworth Tompkins. First published in The Sunday Times, London, on February 5, 2006, as “A novel approach to book-keeping”.

The London Library:
Haworth Tompkins architects: