This Thursday (14th May) the Cornerhouse is holding a one-off Manchester on Film screening that includes film of the opening of what was then known as Manchester Central Reference Library by King George V in 1934. Central Library is my favourite Manchester building.  I love it because with this building nothing is as it seems…

The classical architectural style suggests it was built in 1830’s at the same time as Manchester Art Gallery or the Friends’ Meeting House rather than the 1930’s.  The architect was E. Vincent Harris who also designed the Town Hall Extension next door (completed 1938) and many other civic buildings in the UK.

Is this the best building in Manchester?

Is this the best building in Manchester?

The building looks older than it is because of the use of classical columns and ornamentation that give the feel of ancient Rome.  In fact the design owes a great deal to the circular Pantheon in Rome built by the Emperor Hadrian in the second century A.D.  However, in Central Library’s case the features that give the building its classical appearance are largely superficial.

There are classical columns everywhere, inside and out, but these are all decorative rather than structural and many of them are hollow. The building used modern construction techniques with a steel frame and reinforced concrete floors.  The white Portland Stone is simply a cladding and does not support the structure of the building at all.  Today it would probably be clad in glass.

Above the flurry of columns at the top of the building is a plain wall topped by what appears to be the edge of a large dome.  However, this is an architectural conceit.  What can be seen from the street is only a surrounding pitched-roof covering an outer donut of offices and smaller libraries within which sits the enormous Great Hall at 1st floor level.  There is a domed roof and sky-light above the Great Hall but this is sunk within the building and internally you can look onto it from the fourth floor level.

Beneath the Great Hall the steel structure that supports the building is integral to the book stacks of which there are four levels supporting approx. 45,000 shelves.  If you were to place all the shelves end-to-end there would be 36 miles of them, enough to reach Liverpool.  From the basement small lifts are still used to carry books to the upper floors and communication between these departments was by pneumatic tube before the telephone took over in the early 1990’s…! 

Another great thing about the building is that it is round.  The option for a circular building was influenced by visits to America made by Harris and the Chief Librarian Stanley Jast in the late 1920’s. The benefits of this design are that it allows for a great deal of storage whilst maximising the access to natural-light.  However, the vast circular hall also makes for acoustics which the official library guide tells us are “unusual to say the least”.  

In fact the acoustics are terrible and call into question whether the building was fit for purpose when it was completed.  The reverberations of the slightest bump or cough rebound around the room several times like a door slamming repeatedly – and this despite the modifications that have been made to dampen the sound over the years.

Even with its flaws Central Library is a fine building that is a real feature of the Manchester cityscape (it looks great from above too) and has fed the cultural life of Manchester over the years for example; in music from Sir John Barbirolli – conductor of the Halle to Morrissey – lead singer of The Smiths and in literature/drama from Anthony Burgess (author of Clockwork Orange) to Tony Warren (creator of Coronation Street).  All of these and many others were regular users of the library.   

Crowds flock to the opening of Central Library in July 1934

Crowds flock to the opening of Central Library in July 1934

The Cornerhouse film will show the King opening the building and his actions are recorded on a large plaque at the entrance.  However, the plaque is missing one minor detail in that according to Julian Holder of English Heritage, the King George could not actually get the door to open himself.  I can imagine the architect and the chief librarian frantically trying to turn the key in the lock as the king looks on.  

The door was eventually opened from the inside by one of the staff.  Perhaps with the 75th anniversary of the library opening in July we should honour this unknown Mancunian who did an extraordinary thing by simply opening the library door.  

It may have been after this embarrassing event that the royals started to unveil plaques or cut ribbons as a more symbolic gesture when opening a building rather than actually having to try to turn a key.