Stirling’s History Library (1)

I was intrigued by a tweet by Rowan Moore which says that ‘Unfortunately quite a lot of opinion formers studied history at Cambridge and their experience of Stirling’s building was all they needed to bash modern architecture forever’.

It’s true that Gavin Stamp read history Part 1 in 1968, the year the new History Faculty Building opened. I doubt he liked the experience because he was the most vigorous campaigner against the continued existence of the building.

Who else, I wonder, is Rowan referring to ? Did Clive Aslet also read History Part 1 ? Possibly. Alan Powers ? As it happens, all three have been vigorous supporters of much modern architecture, just not so much the pure, and somewhat dogmatic, modernism represented by the History Faculty Building.

I spent my first week at Cambridge working in the history faculty library. The chairs were not very comfortable and there was an uneasy feeling of being surveyed as one worked because the building was supposedly designed on the model of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. I retreated at the first possible opportunity to the University Library (a modern building) which had open shelf access and the most lovely tea room in the basement. I can’t remember anyone actually using the History Library, apart for lectures, but we were very actively discouraged from attending them by our Director of Studies, so I didn’t.

Did it influence my attitude to modern architecture ? Maybe a bit. It did feel rather aggressively unconcerned with the users of the building, a formal construct which sat in the Sidgwick Site, but bore little relation to it. Of course, it was designed not long before its architect himself turned against modern architecture, employing Léon Krier in his office, a much more formidable opponent of modernism than any of us history graduates.


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