The library of the Royal Institute of British Architects, established at the time of the foundation of the Institute in 1834, is one of the world’s largest and most renowned libraries dedicated to architecture. The rapid growth of library collections was among the reasons for RIBA to look for new headquarters by the 1920s. In April 1931, it launched an open competition for the design of a new building on land it had leased on and around 62-68 Portland Place south of Regent’s Park in Marylebone. The search committee was led by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, architect among others of the Cambridge University Library and, notoriously unafraid of experimenting with new styles and whose dislike of architectural dogma promised that serious consideration would be given to all proposals.
If building for opinionated clients is sure to cause headaches to the most flexible of architects, designing for other architects must surely require nerves of steel and the courage of the authors of the 284 competition entries must be recognized. However, most of the proposals received were found to be mere variations of the then in vogue stripped classical style and lacked originality. Perhaps the fear of having their designs publicly derided by their peers led contestants to cautious conformity.
The winning entry by George Grey Wornum did not convince the judges for its exterior, which was found to be derivative of Swedish minimalism (likely inspired by Gunnar Asplund’s Stockholm City Library that Wornum had visited the year prior) combined with lumpy roof massing that one assessor though reflected “poor taste in hats”. Instead, they commended the efficient and imaginative use of interior space, which elevated his designs from the rest.
Working under tight budgetary constraints, Wornum secured the help of a coterie of unknown but talented artisans that more or less lived on the premises to cut down costs. The proximity to the project site allowed them to experiment with new materials and techniques and work collegially. Among the building’s artisans was Wornum’s own wife, Miriam, a talented interior designer that is credited with most of the colour schemes and textile work. She later described the unique spirit of collaboration that existed between her colleagues as feeling like “building a medieval cathedral.”
The library was designed in close collaboration with then librarian Bobby Carter. Its double-height main room is surrounded on three sides by a mezzanine, all benefiting from the generous light of large north-facing high windows. The windows are separated by rounded half-columns, whose design is repeated in the distinctively streamline moderne curvature of the bookshelves. The latter were enamelled by Miriam Wornum in blue and yellow, contrasting with the golden hue of the cork floor. Their role is not uniquely decorative, as they double as radiators. The bookshelves separate the room into niches where books are arranged around a particular topic (one of which is dedicated to library architecture – I wish I could have spent the rest of the week surveying its contents…). Inside the niches are tables and chairs original to the building.
Named after Sir Banister Fletcher, whose “History of Architecture” is a well-known textbook for architects, now in its 21st edition, the library now holds over 130,000 books and 850 periodicals. The RIBA collections go much beyond that of the library, numbering 4 million objects including scale models, plans, drawings, archaeological artifacts and photographs. The latter form the base of the RIBApix database, a treasure trove of architectural images from around the world. An interactive exhibit provides a glimpse into the remainder of the collection.
The new RIBA headquarters opened in November 1934 after a little more than a year of construction. In 1970, 66 Portland Place was among the first of the modern period to be recognized as a Grade II building of historical and architectural importance. An upcoming renovation project by Benedetti Architects promises to enhance the location’s accessibility and sustainability while maintaining its unique character.
The building is open to the public and fully merits a visit. The library is also publicly accessible upon the production of photo ID. I am very grateful for the kind welcome of the RIBA library staff during my visit there in July of 2022, during which I took the images displayed here.
Library detail pages are primarily a place for me to collect information I gather on the libraries I visit, and are frequently updated. None of this should be considered authoritative, I am not an architect, nor a historian. If you notice something incorrect, please let me know!