Lea Bridge library pavilion – lending new life organically to a public space

The tree-friendly, timber-lined extension to the east London building is a soothing haven that works in harmony with its surroundings

The Lea Bridge library pavilion in east London is, very simply, a lovely place. It is peaceful, soothing, a world apart from the hustle of a big straight road that runs a few metres distant. It supports life both individual and social, quiet reading and busy events – children’s parties, yoga classes, workshops. It gives new life to what has looked like an endangered species: the public library. Its architects, Studio Weave, are best known for kiosks and follies and remaking open spaces with sometimes whimsical arrangements of furniture. Here, asked to design something more substantial and lasting, they have risen to the task.

Much of the project’s success comes from its care for trees. I have written more than I like to think about the phenomenon of urban parsley, whereby green-signalling designers plonk little groves in places where they can’t flourish – over water, on traffic roundabouts, in temporary installations – the most comically disastrous of which was last year’s Marble Arch Mound. The pavilion shows what can be done if you have some actual respect for nature. It is a work of improvisation more than imposition, responsive to the characters of its site and materials.

The original Grade II-listed Lea Bridge library dates from 1905 and was one of the 660 Carnegie libraries in the UK and Ireland.
The original Grade II-listed Lea Bridge library dates from 1905 and was one of the 660 Carnegie libraries in the UK and Ireland. Photograph: Jim Stephenson

It’s partly a matter of layout. The new £711,000 structure, a long and narrow extension to an Edwardian library, runs back from the older building along the edge of a green haven called Friendship Gardens, which will be renovated in the next phase of the works. This arrangement allows both minimum impact by the new work and maximum contact, with the help of end-to-end and floor-to-ceiling glazing, between inside and out. At one point, this glass wall curves inward, to keep its foundations away from the roots of a nearby lime tree. The structure has been designed by the engineers Timberwright so that most of its weight rests on the side furthest from the greenery, again to avoid roots.

The project’s tree-friendliness guides the way the pavilion is made. Its primary material is wood salvaged from lopped and felled trees from London’s streets and parks. As much as possible is used: the best timber goes on pleasingly solid armchairs by the furniture designer Sebastian Cox and the widest planks are used for wall panelling. The skimpier and more imperfect stuff goes to make bands of fluted vertical strips that run the full length of the structure.

The timber’s scavenged origins mean that it comes from many species – “About two dozen,” says Studio Weave’s director, Je Ahn – hardwood and softwood, light and dark. This range achieves an unforced variety of tones and grains, alongside that of the sizes and cuts, a random mingling of pinkish, brownish and whitish woods. The use of the same natural material for walls, ceilings, structure and furniture gives an overall unity, within which can flourish the different rhythms and personalities of the materials and details.

The space feels calm and whole – a place where children happily play on the floor – but not placid and predictable. It has a nervous energy that comes from the off-centre structure, solid on one side and light on the other, with tapering beams in laminated timber and slender steel uprights helping it to stand up. The glass curve, while nicely dividing the interior into a larger main space and slightly mysterious smaller one at the end, dissolves the building into reflections. A long slot of roof light separates the ceiling from the wall. This is architecture you can sit on – in alcoves formed in the wooden wall – sheltering and reassuring, but also springy and poised. Its components seem to come together in space through mutual agreement, rather than be fixed by gravitational law.

A view of the extension designed by the architects Studio Weave.
A view of the extension designed by the architects Studio Weave. Photograph: Jim Stephenson

The spirit of the place is part ennobled shed, part everyday cloister, with a loggia of pillars and beams in pinkish concrete that both shades the interior and provides an intermediate space between inside and out. It is distinctive but not mannered, as every decision is ultimately grounded in considerations such as the protection of trees. Nothing is done purely for effect.

The older library that the pavilion extends is one of 2,509 funded by the Scottish American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, 660 of which were in the UK and Ireland, often in the less favoured districts of the big industrial cities that grew up in the 19th century. With a white-pillared reading room, some gently art nouveau wall tiles and a baroque exterior of red brick and pale stone, it has a civic but playful air common in small-scale philanthropic architecture of the time.

The pavilion’s interior and furniture has been crafted from salvaged timber felled across London parks
The pavilion’s interior and furniture has been crafted from salvaged timber felled across London parks. Photograph: Jim Stephenson

The new library pavilion achieves the same end by a different route. It has been built by the London borough of Waltham Forest as part of what it calls “a commitment to culture on every corner”, albeit funded by part of the proceeds of the contested sale of an old library in another part of the borough. It has support from the mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund, which aims to support “community development”.

It has not been achieved without struggle: the building bears some scars of cost reductions, such as the omission of a roof that would have protected the outdoor space formed within the curve of the glass wall.

Although the building opened a year ago, continuing works to its fabric have meant that its charms were until recently obstructed with scaffolding. Now fully revealed, it successfully updates the lighthearted public spirit of the Carnegie libraries for the 21st century.


Rowan Moore

The GuardianTramp

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