Leeds Laidlaw Library wins prestigious architecture award

PIC: Tony Johnson
PIC: Tony Johnson
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The Laidlaw Library in Leeds won a prestigious architecture award last night. Sharon Dale finds out why there’s such a “buzz” about this strikingly modern building.

Sandwiched between two Victorian churches, the Laidlaw Library does not sit in quiet reverence of its neighbours.

It shouts “21st century” to passers-by who are confronted by its geometric shapes and crisp, elegant exterior. Constructed from Portland stone and glass with shading from steel fins, it couldn’t be more different to the ornate spires and ecclesiastical arches next door.

The building demands recognition and last night it got it in the form of a prestigious RIBA Yorkshire award from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

The judges’ citation of the Leeds University library, designed by ADP Architects, describes it as “an elegant and precise structure” and concludes that it is ”a controlled and hugely accomplished piece of architecture”.

You may disagree but, even if you don’t care for modern architecture, there is no doubting that it is worthy of praise

It does its job superbly thanks to thoughtful design that takes into account the students who use it and the staff who work in it.

The initial brief was to create a “state-of-the-art, IT-rich” library on the site of a former car park. It was much needed to alleviate the pressure on the university’s 1930s Brotherton Library and the Brutalist 1970s Edward Boyle library.

Manchester-based ADP came up with a concept that includes new technology, modern art, café culture, wildlife habitat, a hint of Harry Potter and an abundance of glazing.

The university was keen for the building to be eco-friendly, so there are electricity-generating solar panels feeding the underfloor heating and the low energy, LED lighting. The exposed concrete frame inside is used as a heat sink, moderating peak daytime temperatures and releasing the warmth in the cooler evenings.

Staff and students are clearly delighted with the modern facility: “It has a very intuitive layout and that makes such a difference,” says Julie, who is preparing for the pre-exam rush when the library will be open 24 hours a day. Its normal operating hours are 8am to midnight.

It will be buzzing – and in more ways than one – for springtime is when the library’s resident bees wake from hibernation. They live in three hives in the rooftop garden and, although their honey has not yet been harvested, it may only be a matter of time before this income-generating scheme is suggested.

Buildings like this do not come cheap. The Laidlaw library cost £16m with £9m coming from a former student, Irvine Laidlaw, now a Monaco-based businessman.

There were also donations from 2,300 alumni and friends whose names are listed on a donor wall, while some of their memories of uni life have been etched into a glass “River of Quotes” installation. It is a much admired work of art.

In contrast, the sculpture outside the library divides opinion. A Spire by Simon Fujiwara is designed to echo factory chimneys, the neighbouring church spires and students’ aspirations.

The library too elicits strong responses both for and against because architecture is always subjective.

Lord Melvyn Bragg, a Chancellor of Leeds University, is an ardent Laidlaw Library lover and he wins the prize for the most lyrical description.

The building, he says “has echoes of Athens and the stamp of the 21st century.”