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Oldham Library - Oldham's Double Bill

Phil Griffin, Building Design

Pringle Richards Sharratt's new library and learning centre joins its four-year-old Gallery Oldham in the city's burgeoning cultural quarter. This phase of the project may be PFI, but the architect has triumphed, creating a striking, highly usable space.

When architect Vincent Harris was building his new Coliseum-like library for Manchester in the early 1930s, people speculated on what the circular excavations might be. Some suggested it was a circus where the unemployed would be thrown to the lions.

A sceptical decade, the 1930s. Libraries, from Alexandria to Peckham, are head-turning, mind-setting buildings. Creating a significant one is a challenge. These days the client wants to hit a target somewhere between the British Museum Reading Room and an iPod.

Oldham's new Library & Lifetime Learning Centre is a good and popular building. After just a couple months, it is well used, much appreciated, comfortable and familiar. Nothing that I am aware of should take away from the achievement of architect Pringle Richards Sharratt and the client, developer Kier Northwest, for this is a PFI project.

The fair-faced concrete finishes leave a lot to be desired, furnishing could have been better but, more importantly, could have been a lot worse. There is a roof-line safety balustrade that looks like scaffolding, is highly visible and gives the impression the building isn't quite finished. It is not what project architect Simon Hart wanted. I did kind of promise I wouldn't mention it. Sorry.

Pringle Richards Sharratt completed Gallery Oldham, the first phase of the new cultural quarter, in December 2001. The gallery, which was by traditional procurement, was the first of four phases. The new library is second, potentially to be followed by refurbishment of the existing Victorian library and museum, and a new performing arts venue. The library is on two floors, neatly connecting with the gallery through a double-height foyer space, but only at ground level. In Oldham, art and learning are separately administered. The two buildings are properly discrete, though it seems a pity that they don't connect on more than one level. The library is open seven days a week, with an "express" lenders' service on Sundays. Bizarrely, Gallery Oldham closes on Sundays.

Oldham has been a mills and mining Klondike. Union Street is the main street, and it is a mix of civic and commercial, a bit underplayed now, but with a big new Sainsbury's anchoring the precinct that includes gallery and library. They are neighbourly enough, though it is a bit odd to look out of library windows on to the roof of Sainsbury's petrol station. The library shares entrance and materials palette with the gallery - terracotta panels, exposed concrete and cast glass. The shared entrance opens off a pedestrian street and a garden that rises to Union Street.

The entrance is a double- height space, enlarged to accommodate the desks for both operations. Above where the gallery foyer desk used to be is a commissioned chandelier by artist the Art Department. This is part of the generous art provision in the gallery scheme. The work comprises four big glass test tubes, each glowing a different colour. They allude to Oldham's slightly unlikely role in the history of human fertilisation. Louise Brown, the world's first test-tube baby was born in Oldham on July 25, 1978.

The aspect of the gallery building always invited clear views south on to the distant moors. These are now impeded by the necessary orientation of the library. The new building runs parallel, and slightly sliced away at an angle from the gallery. The buildings are joined in the middle and fly off in wings, east and west. The library has a central stair and structure that obscure the views south.

Pringle Richards Sharratt has turned the building sharp left. East elevations of its two floors have enormous full-height windows on to the moors. On the first floor in particular, this offers a hugely attractive adult reading space, and a not much smaller space and backdrop to the children's library. This is comfortably achieved and reads well from outside, where the gable elevations of gallery and library are matching pairs that could easily have been built simultaneously.

There is a roof-lit slot that hangs over one of the two staircases connecting both library floors. This, and the supporting concrete pillars are the main architectural play. The library is open-plan. Shelving is modest and well enough spaced. Suspended lighting is, along with all other aspects of the environment, effective and pleasant. Some of the spaces are punctuated by full-height galvanised steel grilles. These can be retracted or drawn into place to create secure areas when the building is not fully staffed, as on Sundays. The central staircase rises through a void in a sort of hockey stick move. This is directly in front of the main entrance and is a straightforward piece of interest making. The staircase rises into the middle of the first floor. Behind it is a space that looks back over the entrance foyer. It ends in a full-height glass wall, and it would make a fine cafe area, which for the moment, for all sorts of administration reasons, the complex lacks.

A big part of the new building is taken up by its lifetime learning role. There are suites of teaching rooms laced with IT, and two big art rooms, all collected around an oversized breakout space. There is a handsome performance space with a capacity of about 100. It is double height and drum-shaped with two glazing slots that can be curtained out for performance, and a small control room opening on to a corridor at first floor level. It is designed for recitals, lectures and presentations and has retractable tiered seating. Externally, the drum is fully expressed and copper clad. It is pragmatic and, like the scheme as a whole, indicates a direct un-nervey architectural approach.

Pringle Richards Sharratt has pulled in all available light.

The library and learning spaces make the best use of their orientation. The building is naturally elevated and unobscured to the south and east. Light becomes it - even at night.

As in the gallery, the library has light installations by artist Peter Freeman. He has lit the east elevation which looks back to Union Street. The installation is typical of the building; effective, direct and impressive. There is a flowerbed called Jewel Garden by artist Ruth Moilliet. It is constructed from coloured steel and it sits in the slot between gallery and library. Again it typifies the building; it is robust and distinctly user-friendly.

Oldham Library lets little get in the way of utility. This is not the architecture of ego. Project architect Hart was relaxed when we walked around the building. He is clear that Oldham wanted a building as good as it could be. If there was friction between city council, architect and developer-client, Hart is able to make light of it. I genuinely suspect that his personal approach to this commission, supported by his experience on Gallery Oldham, has made an enormous contribution to the outcome. The entire building - both buildings - demonstrate a set of responses both restrained and muscular. This architecture is striking and useable.

Bennetts Associates' Jubilee Library in Brighton was the peoples' choice for last year's Stirling Prize. Appreciation seemed to be prompted by the fact it was PFI and notably better than might have been expected. It has been held up as a token to the fact that PFI can deliver excellence. That is an argument well rehearsed in these pages. Oldham Library is neighbour to Gallery Oldham, a traditionally procured building by the same architect. Like for like, the gallery wins in terms of build quality and detailing. That said, I believe that Oldham has a high quality Library & Lifelong Learning Centre of 6,300sq m for £12 million, which was delivered by the architect and the developer Kier in 18 months.

Pringle Richards Sharratt has done creditable work in recent years, including the Winter Garden and Millennium Galleries in Sheffield. The two phases of the Cultural Quarter in Oldham are notably successful. Frankly, not much in the town has come up to the council's high ambitions of late. Too much has disunited the community. We know that this is being addressed, and that architects and designers are important to the process. Urban designer Urbed talks of creating a "confident place, at ease with itself".

While galleries and libraries might not be at the top of everyone's list of priorities I believe that they still offer the best possible opportunity for local councils to demonstrate commitment to access and opportunity. They may not be for all, but they address all. Libraries in particular speak of openness, trust and mutuality. They are, after all, free to use. That is, and always has been, a marvellous thing. If PFI contributes to the future for libraries in our towns and cities, so be it. Pringle Richards Sharratt is not the first to present a good building via this route. Hopefully, they will be by no means the last.

Oldham’s Library & Lifelong Learning Centre is built on the site of former mine workings and gas works. The rehabilitation of the site was one of the project’s most complex technical issues and required a detailed strategy to deal with the potential collapse of the mine works, contaminant migration and ground gas.

The brief for the building asked for a high degree of environmental control and specified very tight temperature bands which would have required full air conditioning to achieve. However, after discussions with Oldham council, more flexible performance standards were agreed which permitted a much more energy- efficient solution. The final ventilation design allows for natural ventilation of a number of spaces (away from the nearby busy bypass and the petrol station) and mechanical displacement ventilation elsewhere. Air distribution is via a raised floor which allows the library flexibility to move furniture in the future, and also allows the soffit to be kept as exposed concrete, which provides significant passive cooling.

Night ventilation and solar glazing/brise-soleil help to reduce the cooling requirement as do the energy efficient flat screen computers and low energy light fittings. In winter, high efficiency heat exchangers on the air handling units minimise heating energy use. Daylighting is optimised through use of roof lights and generous floor-to-ceiling heights.

Rainwater from the green roof is collected, treated, and stored in tanks in the basement area. From here it is pumped to flush the toilets throughout the building, which significantly reduces the mains water usage of the building.

The building achieved a Breeam rating of “very good��?.

Architect: Pringle Richards Sharratt 
Client: Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council/Information Resources/Kier Northwest
Structural engineer & building services: Arup
Quantity surveyor: Davis Langdon
Main contractor: Kier Northwest
M&E contractor: NG Bailey

Link: Building Design 9th June 2006

© Building Design 2006