04 April 2022
The British Library: building the future at St Pancras
We’ve been developing plans at our St Pancras site to open up our collection, spaces and services as never before. Roly Keating, our Chief Executive, reveals the unique challenges of transforming our national library into one of the most open, innovative and creative public spaces in the UK.
In March we formally submitted a planning application to London Borough of Camden for a project we’ve been working on for quite a while here at the British Library. Our St Pancras Transformed programme aims to complete our unfinished ‘campus’ in London by building an extension on the 3 acre plot that lies to the north of our existing Grade 1 listed building. The application has just gone live on the Camden Council website.
In its current form this project has been in development for the past few years. But its roots lie much farther back than that, and is a story many decades in the making.
In the early 1970s the newly-created British Library – formed out of the merger of the Library of the British Museum, the Science and Technology Lending Library in Yorkshire and several other institutions – was effectively homeless, at least so far as its London operations were concerned. A plan to build a brand new headquarters in Bloomsbury, directly south of the Museum, had recently been abandoned, as the heritage issues involved had proved insurmountable.
The solution proposed by Lord Eccles, first Chairman of the Library’s Board, was a bold and unexpected one: to purchase the freehold of the disused Midland Railway yards site next to St Pancras station.
It’s fair to say that this choice of location did not cause universal joy at the time. Some researchers expressed dismay at the move out of Bloomsbury. More generally, much of the area around Kings Cross was in those years severely economically deprived, and far from the obvious setting for a major national cultural institution.
Even more controversial was the proposed design that was unveiled at the end of the decade. Colin St John (‘Sandy’) Wilson had been involved with the project since the early 1960s, and he and his team – including his wife and close collaborator MJ Long – had to completely re-think their concept to suit the new location: adapting its form to the awkward wedge-shaped plot, and taking a decision to clad the entire structure in Leicester red brick to match the celebrated Victorian neo-Gothic masterpiece that is its neighbour.
The criticism that ensued lasted for years – but vindication came within Sandy’s lifetime, as the functional brilliance and beauty of the Library’s spaces became widely recognised following its opening in 1998, and then later, even more decisively, with its Grade 1 listing in 2015. Sandy had died by then, but MJ joined us in the cathedral-like space of our front hall for the celebrations.
The ‘land to the north’
But Sandy and MJ’s original masterplan vision was not complete. Of three proposed phases, from south to north, only two were built. With the generous support of donors, a new conservation centre and sound studio block was added in 2007, designed by MJ’s firm Long & Kentish, but the remainder of the 2.8 acre ‘land to the north’ was left unoccupied.
Around the time the building was listed, as we were preparing what became the Library’s eight-year Living Knowledge strategic vision, we took a fresh look at the site. What struck us most vividly was how some parts of the neighbourhood around us had changed beyond recognition since those original plans were created – a transformation in which the Library itself had played a major positive role.
Kings Cross had undergone a profound regeneration, and the whole area within roughly a mile radius of St Pancras area was now host to a thriving cluster of organisations, companies and institutions devoted to research, science and creativity – a group that was beginning to coalesce into what we now know as the Knowledge Quarter.
The once neglected area to the north and east of our was now directly adjacent not just to the bustling St Pancras concourse and its direct connections to continental Europe, but also the Francis Crick Institute for bio-medical research.
For the Library itself, most importantly, it was clear by 2015 that the decision to locate in St Pancras had been a resounding success. The building was alive with activity, and as demand for our spaces services grew not just from our core community of researchers but also from schools, overseas visitors, local residents, small business owners and freelancers, it had become clear that this iconic national library building had become a vital hub for the whole neighbourhood around us.
The clear lesson was that the basis of that original, visionary masterplan was sound, and that if the Library was to continue to have the capacity to serve its growing community of users over the century to come, it would need to expand dramatically.
Alongside our busy and well-loved Reading Rooms we needed more space, flexible and adaptable for the changing needs of our users: for new kinds of informal research, a proper centre for our learning and community activities, room to expand for our vibrant community of business users, and a new suite of galleries to allow a greater proportion of our unparalleled 170m items to be displayed to the public.
An approach for the long term
It was equally clear that this expansion was not for us to do just by ourselves, or just to serve the Library’s own interests. The success of the Knowledge Quarter vision had shown the power and benefit that can be unlocked when very different kinds of organisation – public, commercial and third sector – come together around a shared interest in the creation of new knowledge and innovation. We had already begun to see the fantastic value of co-locating on our site the new Alan Turing Institute for artificial intelligence and data science – a valued tenant, but also a creative and intellectual partner, building synergies and fresh connections between different branches of science, technology and the humanities.
This spirit of partnership and innovation has defined our approach to commissioning and funding the new extension. Our original St Pancras building was of course wholly funded by HM Government, and public capital funding remains vital for institutions such as ours – as demonstrated by the full commitment shown to the Library’s Yorkshire base at Boston Spa in the 2020 Budget, for which we are extremely grateful. But it was not clear to us that this route was either viable or appropriate for our London site.
Equally, we were keenly aware that some forms of public-private partnership have not always had a successful history, in the cultural sector and elsewhere, especially in cases where risk is underwritten by the public partner, or public facilities are operated by private companies.
In the end, we developed an approach which responded to the very particular situation we found ourselves in, as freeholders of this remarkable site at the heart of the Knowledge Quarter, but that was also true to our distinctive nature as a national memory institution.
It’s the privilege of a national library to take a long-term view. Our core St Pancras building was commissioned to last for at least 250 years – and indeed all our planning is based on the assumption the British Library will still be here in the 2200s, and beyond. That perspective strongly influenced the proposal we put to potential partners.
Securing a partner
Our goal was to achieve a fair but firm bargain on behalf of the public who fund the Library and who are the ultimate owners of the collections we care for. With that in mind, we set out to find a partner with the vision and capacity to take a long lease on a portion of our ‘land to the north’, while meeting exacting and specific conditions.
First and most fundamental was that the Library will retain freehold of its entire site – a vital long-term protection of our public mission and investment.
Second was that we required construction of 100,000sq ft of additional interior space designed and configured to our specifications, at no cost to the public purse, for the Library to own, manage and run in perpetuity.
Third, we were clear that any commercial activity and facilities on our land should be consistent with the Library’s mission, values and purposes, and support the Knowledge Quarter vision of facilitating research and innovation.
Fourth, any partner had to be ready to grant the Library both a capital payment and a share of any commercial income over the lifetime of the lease.
And finally, we were seeking an architectural and design team of the highest quality.
We received some superb submissions in response to our call – but the clear front-runner was the consortium now known as “SMBL”. The key partners are the UK arm of long-established Japanese property company Mitsui Fudosan and the London-based development firm Stanhope plc – working with a design team led by Graham Stirk of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSH+P).
Meeting the design challenge
From the very beginning Graham Stirk showed a deep understanding of the building that Sandy and MJ designed. He’d once enjoyed the privilege of personal guided tour by Sandy, when the building was newly opened, and even Graham’s early concepts responded sensitively to key reference points in the original design: its logic and geometry, its internal flow and use of light, its deployment of repeated patterns and materials.
Also on display were some familiar enthusiasms – including for the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto whose work was such a strong influence on Sandy, and on the Library building we know and love.
Above all what has impressed us over these past few years of working with RSH+P is their approach to problem-solving. Libraries are an intensely practical business and any architect has to understand our organisational systems and ways of working, including the need to balance security with a passionate desire to maximise openness and accessibility.
But the problem-solving was about much more than library logistics: the team have needed to think about the movement of people, the complex adjacencies of different uses, and the scale and viability of the rentable spaces. Also, the need to respond to and protect the remarkable buildings that lie all around us: the St Pancras hotel and engine shed, of course, but also the Grade II listed council housing buildings on Ossulston St to the West, and the already-iconic Francis Crick Institute (FCI) for bio-medicine directly to the north.
That close proximity to the medical research community directly influenced the evolution of RHS+P’s design, as it became increasingly clear that our extension needed to have the technical capacity and flexibility to accommodate the burgeoning need for life sciences capability in the Knowledge Quarter, including the technical standards and large open floor-plates needed for dry labs for biomedical research. Four years ago when these conversations about life sciences began we could not have imagined just how timely and globally significant that focus would soon become.
Finally, there was one piece of problem-solving that, almost literally, underpinned all the rest.
Early on in this whole process, it was announced that our development land was to be safeguarded for an additional, entirely different purpose: the future construction of Crossrail 2. This south-west to north-east railway route has been part of London’s transport masterplan for decades, but five years ago a critical piece of re-routing moved it from its previous orientation south of the Euston Road, to a new alignment running directly underneath the Library’s land, with major infrastructure required to deliver the eastern portion of a new underground station linking Euston with St Pancras.
The Crossrail 2 vision is a very long-term one, but the mechanisms are in place to ensure that its force is statutory. It was immediately clear that for any extension of the British Library to proceed it would have to deliver and incorporate a massive programme of subterranean engineering works, including passenger tunnels directly under the current Conservation Centre – thereby putting its own long-term future in question – and a ventilation shaft equivalent in depth to our own vaults underneath our Euston Road piazza.
This aspect of the design will ultimately be almost invisible above ground – but by a marvel of problem-solving and creative engineering RSH+P, working closely with Arup and CR2’s design team, have found a way to incorporate it seamlessly and coherently into the overall scheme. It’s a complex and costly element of the scheme, without doubt, and it’s been consistently impressive to see how SMBL have addressed it within the overall vision. It’s possible to see it as being very much in the history and spirit of the whole St Pancras area – a globally unique blend of massive railway stations and creative knowledge organisations sitting improbably but effectively side by side.
The Crossrail 2 project is currently paused of course – but like the British Library itself, Transport for London thinks and acts for the long-term, and whenever CR2 gets under way again, the construction we plan for this decade will be ready and waiting for it. Addressing it now means that the above-ground parts of this vital and sensitive site can be put to good use and enjoyed by today’s generations.
At the heart of a local community
The extension will enable us finally to bring to life our Living Knowledge vision of a British Library at St Pancras that is truly open to the people and communities who live and work around us, with spaces and services designed to meet and anticipate their needs.
Incorporating new, open facilities for learning and events and a landscaped courtyard, the development will be a welcoming and accessible space for all. It will include additional free study spaces with access to free Wifi for everyone, from school children and university students to local residents and researchers.
A new community garden on Ossulston Street will continue the work started by the much-loved Story Garden and we are excited for the possibilities that the new development will offer to develop co-curated exhibitions and events in collaboration with people from the communities who live near the Library.
Importantly, during a period of national economic recovery, the project will also create local jobs, both during and after construction, and the extension will allow us to expand our existing Business and IP Centre offer, providing vital business support for local start-ups and growing SMEs.
A glimpse of the future
The public consultation undertaken either side of Christmas 2020 was the team’s first chance to give an early sense of the design concept to our nearest neighbours in and around Somers Town and the wider area, and the recently submitted Planning Application will provide the opportunity to see how that design has developed since.
Graham and the team have responded to the intricate challenge of extending our unique and distinctive building, with two new blocks running east to west, set away from the existing building around a new internal courtyard at first floor level, and linked by a new public atrium with accessible entrances at street level on both Ossulston Street and Midland Road.
In profile, the extension builds on one of Graham’s early sketches which showed a new addition to the Library’s sequence of rising pitched roofs – an elegant solution which also ensures the new building will be invisible from within the Library’s front piazza. Within it lie three levels of new space for visitors to Library, including an entire new learning centre, expanded areas for businesses and start-ups, event spaces for use by local communities and partners, and a new suite of purpose-built exhibition galleries – all accessible both from the new entrance hall and from new north-south routes within the existing building.
On the outside, the existing Dangoor Way alongside the Crick doubles in width to become a landscaped east-west walkway with views into the Library, with new public spaces at each end, including a successor on Ossulston Street to the current temporary Story Garden. Also facing Ossulston Street will be the Library’s re-located Conservation Centre, on a new site directly adjacent to our curatorial teams and our new gallery suite.
In terms of colour and materials, Graham’s design consciously echoes key themes of the Wilson building. And it also ensures that the iconic pavement grid pattern of the piazza and existing entrance hall flows across the whole site, inside and out, unifying and giving a sense of common identity.
Looking ahead, there’s much listening to be done, discussion to be had, further and more detailed design development to be undertaken. Our joint planning application with SMBL for the proposed extension, is now available to view and comment on online via the Camden Council website. You can also see our plans in person on the Upper Ground Floor of the Library at St Pancras.
A complex and ambitious scheme like this can only achieve its full potential through open, constructive dialogue and feedback representing as many different perspectives as possible, so if you’re as passionate about the Library and its long-term future as we are, please do contribute.
With our partners, we’ve created a dedicated website to follow our plans for St Pancras as they develop. Please visit to see the latest news on the extension.
If you live locally, we’re always available to discuss our plans with you or answer any questions you may have. You can email [email protected]