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Bath Public Library and Archive

Part 1 Project 2009
Tom Powell
University of Bath, UK

Situated in the world heritage city of Bath, the proposed Public Library & Archive investigates the problem of authenticity in the historic city, adopting an ‘experiential regionalism.’ Abstract qualities of space and light which are distinctly ‘of’ the city are identified, then re-expressed in the form, detail and organisation of the building, instilling it with a valid experience of place.
Further to its contextual agenda, the Library explores architecture as metaphor, allusion and allegory to form a ‘mandala’ or symbolic expression for humanity’s relationship with knowledge in post modern society, as understood through the dissection of Jorge Luis Borges’ contemplative text ‘The Library of Babel.’
A light-turning prismatic lantern hangs through the narrow central atrium, a fold of dynamic changing sky which forms a glowing backdrop to browsing and moving through the library, bringing a bright transcendental daylight to both the archive and the stacks.
The lantern defines an internal street which runs through the building, linking its principal functions. Alongside sits the archive, a structurally distinct and environmentally isolated ‘armarium’ or decorated chest. The memory and experience of the city can be explored digitally through its transparent touch-screen skin, which becomes an ephemeral and dynamic painting of local life and history.
Above the archive sit the stacks, both the catalogue of physical books and the ‘total library’ of digital knowledge, expressed as ephemeral touch-screen flues or ‘Borgian’ air shafts. These voids pierce the distinctly rational and ordered architecture of the stacks, which are further subverted by the mysterious changeable quality of refracted daylight transmitted by the lantern.
Through the juxtaposition of the regimented, rhythmic stacks with their termination in the expressive form, structure and lighting of the reading room ‘drum,’ the Library reinterprets the relationship between the gridded space of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library with its expressive, flamboyant entranceway.
Trading in metaphor and allusion, the proposal attempts a contemporary expression of the library’s paradoxical nature as an institution which attempts to categorise, contain and order our knowledge of a universe which ultimately no method, order or system can explain.

Tom Powell

The final undergraduate project at Bath runs for a full semester and affords each student the opportunity to develop their own project brief, consistent with the theme for the Studio. Every student is also responsible for identifying their own site, which must meet certain given criteria, and which lies within a given locale.

The theme for this year’s studio dealt with the development of the City of Bath within its existing boundaries. The emphasis was therefore on creating greater density within an existing urban boundary and an historic building environment. Additional themes, common to all final year projects, were the exploration of materiality and integration of sustainability within the final design.

Tom chose a particularly challenging site in the heart of the Bath. His project consisted of a new public library and archive for the city. Tom’s research and analysis was meticulous and mature. He drew inspiration from this analysis in developing an urban response that was utterly specific to its context whilst being inventive and unexpected. His research also demonstrated a thorough and personal interpretation of the development of the library typology, which is clearly evident in his final proposition.

Tom is able to draw upon an extraordinary range of artistic, scholarly and technical sources and bring each of these into the service of his architectural imagination. This is exemplified in his use of prismatic film in the developing the detailed design of the library’s central space. The resolution of this space integrates the thematic, spatial, environmental and material preoccupations which found expression in Tom’s architectural response.

Tom’s design work combines a clear and mature sense of order whilst being unique in its expression and inventive resolution. This project was considered by all at Bath to exemplify the ethos of the School in aspiring to the highest design standards, rooted in the application of technical excellence, cultural awareness and the use of independent creative imagination.


Mr Alex Wright
Mr Martin Gledhill
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