Architect's devotion is for the books Library: Colin St John Wilson has been working on the new British Library since 1962, but hasn't given up on his vision as it slowly takes form in London.


LONDON -- Some people have overdue books. Colin St John Wilson has an overdue library building.

In 1962, the architect, then 40 years old, was approached to design a new home for the British Library. He was told it would "take a long time" to create a magnificent shelter for one of the world's most valuable collections of books.

Wilson is now 74. The library is still not finished.

"For me, it has obviously become an obsession," he says.

Some would be defeated by this obsession, driven into the shadows by the construction delays, the cost overruns, the years of working on a project that was started before the Beatles became famous and which may end near the turn of the century as the bound book faces extinction by CD-ROM.

Wilson has even had to endure the criticism of Prince Charles, who compared the place to a secret-police headquarters.

But Wilson is not beaten. He is triumphant. His vision of a library to last 250 years has risen in fitful stages in a shabby area of London by St. Pancras train station, a Victorian confection of gables and towers.

Wilson's brick library is imposing, with its low-slung roofs, green metal awnings, compact windows and clock tower. He calls it history's last "hand-made building."

As he rambles like an inquisitive child down empty corridors and wanders into reading rooms where leather-topped desks and curved wooden chairs await books and scholars, Wilson describes a building that has been in his mind for decades.

Magna Carta will go in that empty glass case in the middle of a luxurious viewing room. Places are reserved for "Handel's Messiah," "Alice in Wonderland" and other treasures. Some day, plywood sheets will come down and the King's Library, assembled by and for George III, will soar six stories in the lobby, a jewel in a crown. And reference books that now take up to two days to reach scholars will speed along conveyor belts from basement shelves to readers' hands in 20 minutes.

Wilson's attention to detail includes brass-plated electrical outlets, fire extinguishers housed behind marble doors and handrails molded from oak.

But the building often has the personality of a 2-year-old throwing a tantrum: as Wilson walks through the lobby, the lights flicker on and off, controlled by some person on some computer in some room.

"There is no light switch that I can turn on," says Wilson, laughing like a man who has grown to expect bizarre things over the years.

Wilson's reputation will rise or fall with this one building. He hasn't worked on another project in years, claiming that Prince Charles' criticism cut his career "at the knees."

"I'm hoping that by the time the building is open, that things will be different," he says.

The saga of the construction of the British Library is filled with tales of mismanagement and monumental cost overruns. The building was conceived in the 1940s, planned in the 1960s, and finally, construction began in 1982. It was supposed to open in 1989. Instead, in 1990, the original project was cut in half -- 25 million books to 12 million. Queen Elizabeth II probably won't get around to cutting the ceremonial opening ribbon until late next year at the earliest.

A recent audit tallied 230,000 construction defects between 1992 and last year. Books tumbled from mobile shelves, electrical cable was defective, the sprinkler system needed an overhaul. The government even considered pulling the plug on the project.

The final price tag, at least by this year's estimates, is $750 million.

But money may be the least of the library's problems. The roughly 750,000-square-foot building has been savaged by architecture critics.

The rub is that in a country that often abhors change, the new British Library is replacing a formidable work of art. For more than a century, scholars wishing to view the library's reference treasures worked under the glorious Victorian dome in the reading room at the British Museum in London's Bloomsbury district. Among those to sit under the 106-foot high dome were Karl Marx, Lenin, Gandhi, Disraeli, Dickens and George Bernard Shaw.

The old reading room may be splendid, but everything else about the old library is cramped, with the vast national collection spread in sites around the capital.

Compared to the old reading room, the new library is a lot like a baseball stadium, enticing visitors with a vast brick courtyard, soaring lobby, escalators and open walkways. The reading rooms are like plush luxury boxes. The library even has a bar.

To the traditionalists, led by Prince Charles, the new library is a monstrosity.

"How can you even tell that it is a library," Prince Charles wrote in "A Vision of Britain."

"It has no character to suggest that it is a great public building," he said. "And the reading room looks more like the assembly hall of an academy for secret police. It could not contrast more sharply with what it's replacing -- the beautiful old reading room in the British Museum which even Karl Marx had to admit did some credit to the capitalist society he sat there plotting to overthrow."

The secret-police crack infuriates Wilson.

"It's an incredibly stupid remark," he says. "Not that I know what an academy for secret police looks like anyway. I believe that in the long run, some faces will be red."

The building is winning admirers.

The Sunday Times recently exclaimed: "It is good."

In a mixed review, the Daily Telegraph architecture critic said the building "is not hideous but it is not inspiring," and added "its best features are its great courtyard and entrance hall."

Wilson savors the compliments. He notes that Christopher Wren was fired before St. Paul's Cathedral was completed. And he dredges up the tale that when the Houses of Parliament were built, Disraeli claimed the architect should be hanged in public.

"For my money, a library is the equivalent of a cathedral," Wilson says. "It's the cathedral of knowledge, the ethos of this culture."

Pub Date: 5/28/96

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