About the Library

History of the Library and collections

Reading Room, British Architectural Library, RIBA

Reading Room, British Architectural Library, RIBA 

 

19th century: the origins of the Library

One of the early aims of the RIBA when it was founded in 1834 was to provide a library of architectural works. Ever since then the move of the Institute to new premises has been prompted by the British Architectural Library's requirements for more space. What began with a £20 donation by architect Charles Barry for purchasing works was augmented by books, papers, prints and drawings from members responding the Institute's calls for donations, and in 1842 by the addition of the library of the Architecture Society. The new Library subsequently expanded throughout the remainder of the 19th century to this very day and is now considered the national collection of architecture.

 

Interior of the RIBA Library, Conduit Street, London

Interior of the Library, RIBA, 9 Conduit Street, London, 1934
Copyright: RIBA Library Drawing and Archives Collections

 

20th century: 'the finest architectural library in existence'

By the 1920s 9 Conduit Street, the RIBA's headquarters since 1859, had become too crowded and the conditions possibly damaging to the collections. A competition to design a new headquarters attracted 284 submissions by the time it closed to entries in 1932. George Grey Wornum's design won because of its provision for the movement of large numbers of people and successful handling of interior spaces, including the Library, which the competition brief described as 'probably the finest architectural library in existence and as such should have an appropriate setting'(1). In 1934 the Library moved with the rest of the Institute to new premises at 66 Portland Place. Wornum worked closely with his wife Miriam on the project. She played a major role in designing the interior of the Library's Reading Room described in the Architectural Review as a 'light airy laboratory' and one of the 'many good things in this building'(2).

Despite the threats posed by bombing raids, the Library stayed open during World War II. Provision was made though for the more treasured items in the collection to be removed for safekeeping in the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, among them the drawings by Andrea Palladio. For the duration of the war the Library was able to arrange for the archive of Modernist architect Adolf Loos to be protected in the basement of 66 Portland Place. 

Edward Carter: 'one of the most important figures the RIBA has ever employed'

During the 1930s the Library was modernised under the leadership of RIBA Librarian Edward Julian Carter (1902 - 1982) and it was claimed in the RIBA Journal that he was 'one of the most important figures the RIBA has ever employed'(3).

Working with Grey Wornum, Carter oversaw the successful plan to move the Library to 66 Portland Place. He was also instrumental in building links between the RIBA and progressive architects of the era and he played a vital role in helping émigré architects fleeing mainland Europe. As well as heading the Library, he was also editor of the RIBA Journal, which at the time had its offices inside the Library. After the war, Carter joined UNESCO, where he went on to become the head of their Libraries Division. 

 

Heinz Gallery, 21 Portman Square, London, 1972

Eileen Gray exhibition, Heinz Gallery, 21 Portman Square, London, 1972
Copyright: Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Library Photographs Collection

 

Post-war period: Expansion and development of the collections

The collections continued to expand after the war and outgrew available space despite Grey Wornum's design that allowed for them to grow in size by a further 40%. New shelves and cabinets were fitted into the Reading Room to accommodate this extra material. Despite these interventions, many of the original features and the open atmosphere of the Reading Room have been retained. Eventually, pressure for space led to material being stored in other parts of the building; in 1958 after 66 Portland Place expanded next door into number 68, the drawings moved to a room in the new extension.

The 1970s saw a resurgence of the Library. The Library Appeal brought in new funds for the Library to develop the collections and was followed by the renaming of the RIBA Library to the British Architectural Library (BAL). The Heinz Gallery was opened as an exhibition space for the public to view the collections. Designed by Alan Irvine and Stefan Buzas, the gallery was housed along with the Drawings Collection at 21 Portman Square from 1972, where they remained until 2004. 

Restoration of the Photographs Collection

In 1935 acting on findings that considered that the collection of photographs suffered from a lack of space and not being indexed, the RIBA transferred the bulk of its photographs to the Courtauld Institute and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Fortunately, the Photographs Collection was resurrected from the 1970s onwards through the efforts of its assistant director Robert Elwall (1953 - 2012). In October 2012 it was renamed the Robert Elwall Photographs Collection in his memory. For over 30 years Robert built it up to become the world's largest collection of architectural images; while doing so he preserved photographic material that had been at risk and created a suitable home for many others, including the archive of the Architectural Press. In 2006 Robert founded the RIBA's image database RIBApix, which had over 72,000 images available online by the beginning of 2013.

Through his work and writings Robert was able to 'bring architectural photography to the widest possible audience and at the same time to illuminate its importance as a powerful - if often undervalued - means of architectural and cultural expression'(4). 

 

Students using the CETLD Education Room, 2011

Students with material from the collections, CETLD Bene Education Room

 

21st century: widening access to all

21 Portman Square was vacated in 2004 when the Drawings Collection joined the Library's Manuscripts & Archives Collection and together they were relocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the V&A + RIBA Architecture Partnership. New shared facilities were created at the V&A: the V&A + RIBA Architecture Gallery, a free permanent gallery of architecture featuring items from the collections of both institutions; the RIBA Architecture Study Rooms, a space for the public to access the RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections; and specialist areas where the collections could be stored and conservation work could be undertaken.

The most recent new space created for the Library was the CETLD Bene Education Room, opened in 2007 to provide a flexible space for student groups attending the Library's education programme at 66 Portland Place.

When founded, the Library was for RIBA members only, but admission was widened in 1854 to include any fee-paying visitors. In 2008 admission charges were abolished and access to the Library became free to any member of the public. Since then, one of the world's greatest architectural collections, managed and conserved by the Library, has been available to all to enjoy at the RIBA headquarters and the V&A. As part of the RIBA, the Library today continues to reach out to members and the public through exhibitions, talks, education and via the services of the Information Centre.

 

References:

1. Richardson, M., 2004. '66 Portland Place'. London: RIBA Enterprises, p.39

2. Reilly, C.H., 1934 December. 'Grey Wornum and his building'. Architectural Review, p.194

3. Games, S., 1982 August. 'Bobby Carter: an appreciation'. RIBA Journal, vol 89(8), p.17

4. Mayfield, M., 2012 March 8. 'Obituary: Robert Elwall'. Building Design (online), www.bdonline.co.uk (accessed 8 March 2012) 

 

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