Praise builds for new British Library

September 17, 1995|By New York Times News Service

LONDON -- If told as an epic, the story of the construction of the new British Library would rival Odysseus' 20-year siege of Troy and his wandering in search of Ithaca. Except that it's

longer and more heartbreaking.

But maybe, just maybe, this one too will have a happy ending.

The mammoth building off Euston Road is nearing completion, expected in a year's time. The construction walls are beginning to come down, like the wrapping around a present everyone dreads receiving.

But what is being slowly revealed is not "one of the ugliest buildings in the world," as the National Heritage Committee predicted years ago, but what some brave souls call an exciting and glorious creation. What may well be Britain's single most important and expensive public project this century might just turn out to be -- though no one yet dares to say the word -- a triumph.

"Knock wood," said Colin St. John Wilson, the architect. Throughout what he calls "my own 30 years' war," Mr. Wilson's artistic vision has been so vilified -- by everyone from Prince Charles down -- that his firm has not received a single new commission since the late 1970s.

Now, at 73, with most of his life's work sunk into a single building, he is beginning to spot the possibility of vindication on the horizon.

"That would make it all worth it," he said. "You know, the loneliness of the long-distance runner. It may be all right in the end."

And as sweet as the vindication at home is the revenge abroad. For the library's great competitor is the new French national library, rushed to near-completion last April so that it could be opened before the end of Francois Mitterrand's term as president, and it had more money, less time and a lot of Gallic fanfare.

When President Mitterrand cut the ribbon on his pet project, it had taken $1.5 billion and just 19 months for four majestic 240-foot-high buildings, each one L-shaped to resemble an open book, to rise up on the Right Bank of the Seine.

The contrast made for monumental shame. The new British Library, still unfinished after three decades, became more than a building. It turned into a symbol for Britain's disarray and fatigue, for its inability to do anything right. It was a national disgrace.

But now the bookworm turns.

Now that the building can actually be seen in its entirety, a few architectural critics are putting their heads above the parapet to take a look at Mr. Wilson's masterwork and pronouncing the view "breathtakingly beautiful," as one writer said in The Evening Standard, a newspaper that for years had led attacks on the building. Others still don't like it. But there's a sense that that opinion may begin to swing.

Suddenly people are beginning to appreciate the serenity of the entry courtyard, designed to "calm down" the visitor, and the powerful asymmetry of the library itself.

The boosters note how the exterior -- built of 10 million handcrafted salmon-colored bricks and roofs of gray slate -- blends with the Victorian Gothic facade of George Gilbert Scott's hotel at St. Pancras railroad station next door. The steeples and chimneys of the hotel can be seen from the courtyard and it seems all of a piece.

Most of all they marvel at the library's entrance hall, its most powerful feature. It is huge. With diverging walls of brick laced by bands of stone and with an undulating ceiling line and curving balcony stairs, it seems to exert a physical force.

And all this is before the dramatic centerpiece is in place, the King's Library that belonged to George III, a leather and vellum-bound collection that will rise up in a central glass bookcase, six stories tall.

Meanwhile across the Channel, the new French library has received brickbats from academics and others because of its impracticality. It put the books in the glass-enclosed towers, where heat and light make preservation difficult, and it put the readers down below.

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