HOME LIBRARIES –
WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
It is one of the most seductive, sensual and special of rooms, a place of comfort and escape. The home library is a traditional idea, long associated with the grand country house especially, but now it is being reinvented for twenty-first century living. A new generation of bespoke, dedicated and architecturally stunning home libraries are the result of close collaborations between designers and a growing band of book lovers with desires for that most indulgent and mesmerising of retreats.
Just as the public library has been radically redesigned in recent years – catering for changing needs and different kinds and formats of information – the home library has also been evolving. It's a trend that looks forward and backwards at the same time, as the ideals of the grand home libraries of the past are reinterpreted in highly contemporary, design rich spaces. While some might opt for a multi-media zone, containing not just books but music and film collections, others are choosing to preserve the idea of the library as a place of calm and quiet where books are still very much king.
"In a traditional house of a certain scale a library was the intellectual centre of the home," says architect Timothy Hatton. "In the eighteenth century there was this ambition that the library might contain the sum total of all useful knowledge. In the twenty-first century this might not seem so possible, but the idea of a library as the intellectual centre of the home is still important.
"People who are passionate about books do enjoy being enveloped by them and just drinking in the spines. There is something very comforting about surrounding oneself by the knowledge and stories contained in those pages. Why do we keep all those books, especially if we will never read them again? But if you are a book person it's very hard to live without them."
Hatton recently completed a dramatic new home library in central London. Perched at the top of a seventeenth century town house, Hatton's library for a private client involved adding two new floors to the building and creating an powerful and bespoke double height library, complete with a mezzanine gallery containing a study and further books. The space is top lit by a triptych of skylights which echo the sequence of windows facing the street.
The library was commissioned by a 'polymath collector' with a passion for books, as well as paintings and objets d'art. The books on the shelves range across a wide range of subjects, while the library doubles as an additional sitting room in this family house.
"The library as a retreat is seductive and it is easy to read this library as a personal retreat," says Hatton, who is now working on a new commission for a second home library. "But what is particularly gratifying is that the library is actually used by different members of the family and is an active part of the house. It's a shared space, which is a great thing. It could be easy to be precious about such a room but there's nothing precious about it or the way that it is used."
Hatton took care to gently spread the great weight of the loaded bookshelves across the party walls, so avoiding the need for any structural resupporting of the existing three floors of the historic house below. Careful positioning of the skylights and windows avoids any direct sunlight falling on the books or artwork, while the temperature is also closely controlled.
Rare book dealer Bernard Shapero suggests that in Britain we are blessed with one of the kindest climates in the world for keeping and savouring books. "Books don't want to be above a radiator pumping out dry heat and you don't want them next to a window with the rain coming in," says Shapero. "You don't want direct sunlights burning down on them either – you just want a normal temperature and they will be fine. So Britain one of the best countries in the world to own a book, especially rare books. We haven't got the shocking humidity or terrible hot dry heat which books don't like."
Shapero has a modest home library in his Hampstead family home – a period house which has been radically remodeled and extended by architects Eldridge Smerin. This dedicated space, just off the living room, is bordered by shelves plus a series of display cases for special pieces. As a dealer, of course, Shapero has to avoid the temptation to hold on to valuable stock, so the modest scale of the library acts as a brake upon temptation. It is devoted to books for which he has developed a particular affection: signed art books and modern fiction first editions, plus occasional curiosities that are not so much valuable as intriguing. Among his clients, Shapero has noticed a resurgence of interest in the whole idea of a bespoke home library.
"In the last ten years or so when people have been commissioning, building and developing houses there has been a definite trend of having a room that people call the library," says Shapero. "Everyone has been building libraries, although not always packed with rare books. But the design quality of houses has gone up and when you have a multi-million pound house, then it has to have a library these days."
Not that creating a library has to cost a fortune in itself. What's so wonderful about the new generation of libraries is not just the ingenuity of these contemporary designs but the breadth and originality of their scale and conception. They recall the wonderful range of libraries created by some of the pioneering Arts & Crafts and Modernist architects in the first half of the twentieth century, such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh's library for publisher Walter Blackie at Hill House in Helensborough in Scotland or Alvar Aalto's library at Villa Mairea, in Finland, for his long standing friend and client Harry Gullichsen, where the timber company boss would also hold occasional business meetings.
In the 1990s, the highly inventive architect Simon Ungers – who died a few years ago, tragically young – designed the extraordinary T-House in the countryside of upstate New York for academic Lawrence Marcelle. This sculpted home, coated in plates of Cor-Ten steel was largely designed around a dedicated two level library cradled in the uppermost part of the house, with views out across the surrounding woodland. And at his Maison a Bordeaux, Rem Koolhaas created a dynamic building around a central library core, tailored to the needs of his disabled client. The floor of the library formed a platform lift which allowed the owner to move between the levels of the house and the bookcases which spanned the storeys.
Now, London based architect Gianni Botsford has won the Lubetkin Prize for architecture with the creation of a dedicated library at Casa Kike in Costa Rica for his father, the writer, journalist and academic Keith Botsford. When Botsford moved from Boston to Costa Rica he found a tempting site with a small existing house, largely used for guests. He commissioned his son to create a small compound with the addition of two new pavilions, raised up from the ground on stilts, which hold the master bedroom in the smaller of the pair and a large library in the other.
"For my father, the reason for doing the project was to find a home for his books because he is never happy unless he is surrounded buy his books," says Botsford . "The more they can be in one single place, then the better it works for him. There are a lot of books – around 17,000 – which is partly how the height of the library pavilion came about. We needed the height for all the shelves."
The timber framed building was raised up on legs to help keep the library cool in this warm and moist central American climate – which is not as kind to books as London or New York state – while also keeping any termites at bay. A roof of corrugated metal wraps around the building, while louvred windows also help to keep the space naturally ventilated. The bookshelves reach up to the ceilings, slotted between the timber frame that forms the structure of the pavilion itself. Here, Botsford can be found nearly all day and every day, working, reading and writing.
"It is probably as close to being the perfect library for a writer/editor/historian/critic as you can imagine," Keith Botsford says. "Since I have been buying books all my life, and in a dozen languages, I can safely say that if I need to know anything, chances are that I will have it. But each new writing project brings up fresh needs and fresh despatches and books arrive every week.
"I live on the edge of a rain-forest-cum-volcano behind me and the sea before me and leather book covers could rot. But we do our best. This is a working library and not a flossy collector's space…."
In upstate New York, architect Peter Gluck has likewise preserved the integrity and charm of the home library by creating a distinct and independent new building, sited around a hundred yards away from the family's country home in the Hudson Valley. This striking, modern cube in the woods has – like Botsford's Casa Kike – drawn a huge amount of praise and admiration, as well as countless calls from would-be clients asking if they could have one just the same. On a modest budget and using the practice's own construction company, Gluck created the 'Scholar's Library' for his wife, writer and academic Carol Gluck.
A much respected expert on modern Japanese history, who teaches at Columbia University, Carol Gluck had only asked for a proper desk chair in the house to make her working life more comfortable. "But give an architect the opportunity to imagine a better place for a scholar to work and this is what Peter came up with. It was his idea to have stacks of books on a lower level, which I desperately need, and then a work space on the upper storey opening out to nature. It's an amazing idea."
Carol Gluck's 10,000 or so books, then, are safely stored on the closed bottom section of the library cube, which is clad in concrete board. The upper level, with a desk and enough shelving to store books in use, looks out into the woodland. Gluck now spends much of her working life, outside teaching, in the library and completed her last two books in her home retreat. So seductive is the space that she confesses it can be hard to persuade her to leave it.
"To me this is the gift of architecture," says Carol Gluck, "This is a transformative space. The library is the best space that I have ever worked, including some wonderful spots in Japan. It is above all serene, in part because you are suspended in the trees. I call it my 'tower' as in 'ivory' and also because it seems to float above the earth."
Like any great library, these bespoke, tailored spaces are highly comforting. Anyone who has grown up surrounded by books, or has been seduced by their charms and character, will know the great sense of pleasure to be found among shelves filled with the things you love. No wonder that in so many children's books, from Little Women to Lemony Snicket's stories of the Baudelaire orphans, the library is seen as a magical space of comfort, delight and discovery – and fun.
In Texas, designer and architect Salle Trout has created a library stairway at the heart of her new home, where the stairs wrap around a spiraling tower of books. These can be accessed from the ground or the stairs themselves, as well as from a bosun's chair attached to a chain hoist, supported from the ceiling, which can whisk you up the stacks like a steeple jack to find that precious volume.
"The lift operates from a remote control and it's great sport to let unsuspecting friends go up and leave them to dangle as we hold on to the remote," says Trout. "More seriously, having quick access to cookbooks, dictionaries and poetry is essential for me and my husband. We cherish books and love to have an unusual space to display, store and enjoy them."
Publisher and Bloomsbury books co-founder Liz Calder, too, has recently discovered the benefits of a new home library, although in a more grounded fashion. Having always had to spread books around her home in the past, Calder now has a new and bespoke space designed by architect Abe Odedina, which also links two part of the Suffolk home that she share with her husband, writer Louis Baum.
"The library is in a new gallery that Abe designed, which runs down the back of the house," says Calder. "It has books all along one side and skylights above. This library is the first time that we have amalgamated all our books and put them into one place. It was a real pleasure to bring them together and to do a bit of weeding, as well as to put them into something approximating a system.
"If you are a collector of books then you tend to have a vague idea of where any particular book is, but this is a great improvement. There is a certain amount of library envy. Some of our friends tell us that this is what they have always wanted while some have libraries of their own. It was really a great opportunity and is now a great pleasure."
Timothy Hatton Architects – www.thal.co.uk – 020 7727 3484
Eldridge Smerin – www.eldridgesmerin.com – 020 7228 2824
Gianni Botsford Architects – www.giannibotsford.com – 020 7434 2277
Peter L. Gluck & Partners – www.gluckpartners.com – + 1 212 690 4950
Trout Studios – www.troutstudios.com – + 1 512 894 0774
Abe Odedina Architects – 020 7737 5774/ 07710 024466
Bernard Shapero – www.shapero.com – 020 7493 0876