‘There will always be a need for looking at books in a quiet and civilised place
AFTER the devastation of Second World War bombing, when society was clamouring for reconstruction in the ‘latest modern architectural styles’, the careful Benchers of the Inns of Court rebuilt their small quarter of London with polite brick-and-stone buildings that faithfully recreated the grain and atmosphere of the prewar Temple, complete with gas lamps and paved with York stone.
While the once fashionable postwar office blocks in the rest of London quickly became redundant and, in many cases, have now been demolished, the Temple now stands as a coherent bastion of lasting architectural values that have stood the test of time.
As part of the reconstruction designed by T. W. Sutcliffe, a new neo-classical library was created and finished internally to the highest standards. It opened in 1958 and is still much loved by those who use it. For its quality and interest, the library ought to have become a listed building by now, but English Heritage (now Historic England) has instead concentrated its efforts on listing the more strident architecture of the 1960s, presumably before redundancy, inadaptabilty or poor construction push them into complete extinction.
In the name of new working practices, there are plans to devastate the library: its interior is to be cut in half so that new meeting rooms and ‘break-out’ spaces can be created above it. These will be set under a central glass atrium. In order to progress through planning, a sham section of tiled mansard roof screen pays lip service to the old Temple roofscape, while also concealing the air conditioning ducts that will be necessary to keep this over-scaled, glazed space cool. In what is left of the old library, the handsome pediments of the door cases will be truncated and the elegant timber galleries destroyed.
In June, the present and past architectural editors of COUNTRY LIFE wrote collectively to The Times to voice their opposition to these changes. Athena strongly agrees with them. The planning committee’s subsequent vote to approve the work was only 14 to 12, hardly a convincing endorsement of such damaging proposals. However, there is always time to think again.
Architectural and working fashions come and go, but, up to now, the Benchers have taken a longer view. Working practices are subject to change all the time, but there will always be a need for looking at books and working in a quiet and civilised place. Once destroyed, however, the Inner Temple library will be irreplaceable; lost in this case—it seems —from a desire to be ‘modern’. How sad that the Benchers, having held out for common sense for so long, should now fall prey to this short-sighted view of its future.