The John Rylands Library

The John Rylands Library
Manchester, UK. 1900
Architects: Basil Champneys

The John Rylands Library is a Victorian Gothic building on Deansgate in Manchester, England. The library, which opened to the public in 1900, was founded by Mrs Enriqueta Augustina Rylands in memory of her late husband, John Rylands. Since July 1972 the building has served as the Special Collections section of the John Rylands University Library (JRUL).

By the 19th century Manchester had become a prosperous textile manufacturing town and the demands of cotton manufacturing stimulated the growth of engineering and chemical industries. The town had become 'abominably filthy' and was 'often covered, especially during the winter, with dense fogs ... there is at all times a copious descent of soots and other impurities'. This, along with the overcrowded site, created many design problems for the architect. During the century most textile manufacture tended to move to newer mills in the other towns of the district while Manchester itself remained the centre of trading in cotton goods both for the home and foreign trades. Pollution from the burning of coal and gas remained a considerable nuisance even in the 1890s.The site, chosen by Mrs. Rylands to be in a central and fashionable part of the city, was awkward in shape and orientation and surrounded by tall warehouses, derelict cottages and narrow streets. The proposed position was criticised by many for its lack of surrounding space and the fact that the valuable manuscript collections were to be housed in "that dirty, uncomfortable city... not enough light to read by, and the books they already have are wretchedly kept" (written in 1901 about the Crawford MSS.) Mrs. Rylands had negotiated Deeds of Agreement with her neighbours to fix the heights of future adjacent buildings. The permissible height of the buildings on the library site was fixed at just over thirty-four feet, but it was suggested that it could be taller at the centre if there was an open area around the edges, at the height of the buildings that had been demolished to make way for the construction. Champneys incorporated this suggestion into his design, building the two towers of the main facade twelve feet back from the boundary and keeping the entrance block low, to allow light into the library. He also designed the building in a series of tiered steps with an almost flat roof to give a 'liberal concession' to the neighbours' 'right to light'. When the library was opened, the main reading room on the first floor, thirty feet above the ground and twelve feet from all four boundaries, was noted for the pleasant contrast between the 'sullen roar' of Manchester and the 'internal cloister quietude of Rylands'. It was lit by oriel windows in the reading alcoves supplemented by high clerestory windows along both sides.
The building was constructed of Cumbrian sandstone, the interior a delicately-shaded 'Shawk' stone (from Dalston, varying between sand and a range of pinks) and the exterior, dark red Barbary stone from Penrith, built around an internal steel framed structure and brick arched flooring. The red 'Barbary plain' sandstone, which Champneys believed 'had every chance of proving durable' for the exterior, was an unusual choice in late Victorian Manchester. It did, however, prove relatively successful, as an inspection by Champneys in 1900 revealed little softening by the 'effects of an atmosphere somewhat charged with chemicals' although, by 1909 some repairs were needed.
Champneys also suggested to Mrs. Rylands that, in order to protect the valuable books and manuscripts, 'it will be very desirable to keep the air in the interior of the building as clear and free from smoke and chemical matter (both of which are held in the air of Manchester) as may be possible'. The ground floor had been built with numerous air inlets and, although his client felt that it would prove impossible to exclude foul air, Champneys installed jute or hessian screens to trap the soot, with water sprays to catch the sulphur and other chemicals, which was a very advanced system for the period. Internal screen doors were employed in the entrance hall to prevent the air being 'fouled by the opening of the outer doors' with internal swing doors between the circulation areas and the main library to 'preserve the valuable books from injury. By 1900 the ventilation system had evolved to include electric fans to draw in air at pavement level through coke screens sprayed with water.

Image by izzy verena 

Image by izzy verena 

Image by izzy verena 


"The John Rylands Library". Hidden Architecture

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