Thursday, June 9, 2011

Radcliffe Science Library Paper

Here is the paper I wrote a week or so ago on the history and architecture of the Radcliffe Science Library. I chose the RSL as the building I wanted to research and write on because I visit it fairly often to look at physics books I can't get anywhere else. I also pass it every week on my way to my tutorials in the Physics building. On top of that, it is a nice looking building. That seemed like reason enough. Also, as a bonus to online readers, I've included maybe twice as many pictures in this version of the paper as in the version I handed in to Dr. Tyack. Enjoy!

The Radcliffe Science Library

The Radcliffe Science Library, a cornerstone for the Oxford faculties of science, is an impressive, L-shaped building on the corner of Parks and South Parks Roads. It’s stone facing and sheer size mark it as a building of import, while its style gives it an air of refinement appropriate for a library. From the outside, its two separate wings are identifiable.

The building’s history dates back to the death of  Dr. John Radcliffe, a physician, in 1714. Part of his will stipulated “The building of a library in Oxford”[1], among many other philanthropic endeavors through which his name is known around Oxford. The original Radcliffe Library was established in the Radcliffe Camera in 1749 as a library separate from the Bodleian[2]. After 1811, the Library began focusing on collecting literature in medicine and natural science[3]. The Library moved into the first floor of the University Museum, next to its present location, in 1861, opening up the Radcliffe Camera as a reading room for the Bodleian[4]. It remained there, content until it began running out of shelf room at the end of the nineteenth century. It was then that work began on establishing a building for the Radcliffe Library.


The site for the library was chosen to be next to its previous housing, the University Museum, where faculty members were studying and teaching science at the time. Adjacent to the Museum was also the chemistry laboratory, which can still be seen today. This area and the area surrounding it, south of the University Parks, would develop into a large science area, with many additional science and engineering buildings being built nearby in the first half of the twentieth century[5]. The 1937 map, Figure 2, shows the Library’s position in the southwest corner of the science area.

Jackson Wing

The original building for the Radcliffe Science Library is today called the Jackson wing, named after its famous architect, Thomas Graham Jackson. The building was built to house the science and medicine collection that, in the 1890s, was outgrowing the University Museum. When “all possible modes of storage by galleries and extra cases were wellnigh exhausted,”[6] the Draper’s Company, a philanthropy interested in social and educational reform[7], stepped in to fund a new building. The Company hired Jackson and, in 1901, presented the new building, shown in Figure 3, to the University.
Thomas Graham Jackson was a logical, safe choice for the project. Around the turn of the century, Jackson was the architect in vogue around the University of Oxford, and, later, Cambridge. He had already built a plethora of buildings around the town, including the iconic Examination Schools and Bridge of Sighs. The Radcliffe Science Library was one of his final two buildings at Oxford[8].

The Jackson Wing is a Grade II historical building[9], and for good reason. The structure is imposing, with tall windows, columns, arches, and buttresses. The building was built in a “characteristically mongrel style, part Gothic and part Renaissance”[10]. The main features of the building are the repeating tall windows separated by tall supporting buttresses, reminiscent of the University’s many Gothic buildings. The windows are framed by strong Doric pilasters and circular arches, incorporating Renaissance styles into the building. The old southern entrance to the building, now on South Parks Road, shows the Renaissance style even more distinctly. Above the doorway are windows framed by two large Doric pilasters. The upper windows are separated by Ionic columns bridged by a semi-circular arch. The fa├žade is capped by a plain, circular pediment in the Doric order. 
Though a twentieth-century building, the interior was laid out in the traditional style of the older Oxford libraries. The long, rectangular rooms have central walkways with bookshelves extending out from the walls symmetrically on either side. The bookshelves are separated by desks for studying. This contrasts with more logical, modern library layouts, where the books are in the center of the room and the desks surround the books on the outside.

Worthington Wing

By the early 1930s, the Radcliffe Science Library was again running out of room for its rapidly growing collection of scientific works[11]. In 1931, a University commission wrote,
“…the present system is well adapted to the needs of workers in science. But more space is wanted at once for readers. More accommodation in the book-store will be necessary in about ten years’ time, and this period would be reduced if those new science books that are now left in the central Library were stored here. More accommodation for the staff is desirable…We recommend that the existing buildings be extended towards Parks Road and northward along it, so that the extended building will be roughly L shaped.”[12]
The proposed plan, different from the end product, is shown in Figure 7. The curators of the Bodleian approved the extension, estimated to cost them £49,000, and hired Hubert Worthington to design the building. The project was opened by the Princess Royal in 1934[13]. In total, it cost “little more than £40,000”[14], far under budget.
Sir Hubert Worthington was “the most prolific architect in Oxford of the 1930s”[15]. He was a lecturer on architecture in Oxford who had earlier worked with Edwin Lutyens[16]. Worthington’s first building in Oxford was the extension, and it “epitomized his…style”[17].

The Wing, like its older counterpart, looks imposing and important, but in a much different way. Geoffrey Tyack writes that it is “influenced by contemporary Dutch and Scandinavian models”[18]. Its siding, punch-faced Bladon rubble[19], is rougher than that of the Jackson Wing. The building features few ornaments. It has complementary, tall windows, also framed by arches, but without any Gothic or Classical styling. The windows are thin and plainer, using no stone tracery. Its interior also complements the Jackson wing, employing a similar floor plan, modeled on the traditional Oxford colleges. Worthington added circular vaults to the ceiling between the bookshelves, but left the central corridor ceiling flat.
Gill Doors

A notable feature of the 1934 extension are the wooden sliding doors carved by Eric Gill. In 1901, Gill had been commissioned to carve the  name “Radcliffe Library” on the South Parks Road entrance to the Jackson wing[20]. In 1935, he was commissioned again to design oak relief panels for the doors to the Rare Books Room. The doors, shown in Figure [], depict six famous Oxford scientists – Roger Bacon, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, William Harvey, Sir Christopher Wren, and Johann Jacob Dillenius.

Lankester Room and Main Stacks

The collections of the library continued to grow, and, in 1975, another expansion was completed. This extension went two floors deep underneath the Worthington Wing as well as the adjacent car park and lawn. The bottom floor is book storage. Above that is the Lankester Room, a large reading room named after its architect, J. Lankester[21].

2005 Connection and Alterations
In 2005, the Library added a connection to bridge the floors of the Jackson and Worthington wings and moved the entrance to its present location. The connection is a simple, modern staircase that links the unaligned floors of the two buildings. The staircase is cased in clear glass, giving it a touch of a modern look but, mainly, not calling attention to itself or significantly clashing with the other two wings. The connection preserves some of the detailing of Jackson’s exterior, including his buttresses and columns.

The current building remains as serious and imposing as ever. The two wings, featuring timeless Classicism, traditional Gothic, and slightly modern, unornamented stylings combine to form a feeling of austerity. The building preserves the look and feel of Oxford while being entirely functional as a modern science library. The buildings exterior and interior cleanness, relative to Oxford buildings, fits with its role as a center for the scientific community. So, while it is not nearly the most elaborate or complex work of architecture, it can claim a sort of recognized, but unassuming, beauty that blends in seamlessly with Oxford and makes sense given its simple purpose – keeping scientific books, students, and researchers. 

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