Undoubtedly, Ireland's finest example of Brutalism can be found within the grounds of the grand dame of Irish educational institutions, Trinity College Dublin. The Berkeley Library still has the power to provoke a strong reaction, and the story of its young designer being catapulted onto the world’s stage is as inspiring today as it was sixty years ago.
The sixties were such an exciting time for university design in Ireland, with Andrzej and Danuta Wejchert’s masterplan for UCD and Andy Devane’s (of RKD Architects) student accommodation blocks and chapel for St Patrick’s College (today DCU). During the 1940s and 1950s,Trinity College Dublin was quickly running out of space for its growing number of students and books. Up to then, students were served by the Old Library (1732) designed by Thomas Burgh and the Reading Room (1937). The college decided to build a new library at the end of Fellows Garden (today Fellows Square) between the Old Library and Deane & Woodward’s Museum Building (1857).
In 1960, Trinity College held an international architectural competition with a brief that the new library speak to the architecture of the twentieth century. It would receive 218 submissions from twenty-nine countries. The competition was won by a young architectural graduate from London, Paul Koralek (1933 – 2020), who had never visited the site. After completing his architecture degree in London’s AA (Architectural Association School of Architecture), Koralek worked with Marcel Breuer in New York and it was on his kitchen table in his tiny flat there that Koralek designed the library. Koralek had made a pact with his classmates Peter Ahrends (b.1933) and Richard Burton (1933 – 2017) that if any of them had success they would invite the other two to form an architectural practice of their own, which they did after the Berkeley competition win, becoming ABK Architects.
The judges were impressed by the idea of the new library stepping back from its eighteenth and nineteenth century neighbours to create a piazza-like podium. It featured an innovative use of concrete, too, poured into moulds made from Douglas fir, giving the impression of woodgrain on the surface of the concrete slabs. The podium also included an underground link to the eastern pavilion of the Old Library. The building is finished in ashlar granite and exposed concrete which is a nod to the materials of the Old Library and the Museum Building. The rectangular form of the building is contrasted with a sequence of storey-high, curved glass bay windows in bronze frames. The glass, like the walls, is hand-crafted.
This flat-roofed cube is deceptively large, with three storeys over a basement.
The basement level under the library extends beyond the footprint of the building and under the podium forecourt providing room for vast quantities of storage. Berkeley is a copyright library holding nearly seven million books, with one million on site and the rest held offsite in storage in Santry.
The completed library was different to the winning design. The competition assessors saw Koralek’s talent and decided to mentor him along with the craftspeople and builders involved in the project. Master builders G&T Crampton began construction in 1964. The original plans specified pre-case concrete, i.e., walls made off-site then assembled on site, but Ireland lacked the technology at the time so Cramptons were tasked with casting on site using shuttering, lending an artisanal, intimate quality to what might otherwise be quite daunting surfaces of concrete.
Inside the library is a unique reading experience where the reader is prioritised and offered a variety of spaces from traditional rows of reading desks to private reading nooks. Remarkably for such a hard-working building most of the original features are intact, including the built-in concrete desks, window seats, ply bookshelves, vinyl flooring and the lettering of the 'No Smoking’ and ‘Silence is Requested’ notices. The original concrete reception counter has been replaced but a similar one can be seen in Iveagh Hall on the ground floor. The building is surprisingly bright with lots of natural light funnelled down through each floor from the roof. The reinforced concrete columns dotted throughout the building are elegantly smooth with curved edges.
ABK Architects were invited back to design the Arts Block (1968 – 78), again a Brutalist building with a cascading façade redefining the square and the Douglas Hyde Gallery (1978) next to the Nassau Street entrance of the campus. Gallery 1 of the Douglas Hyde is a double-height space which is unusually approached down a cantilevered staircase, the formwork executed by carpenter Liam Foran who was just nineteen years old at the time. Gallery 2 was designed by McCullough Mulvin Architects and opened in 2001. It has a wonderfully intricate access door which operates like a camera aperture with the moving panels forming a total of 16 variations of openings to the gallery.
The empty plinth in front of the library was erected for the inaugural Henry Moore (1898 – 1986) exhibition in 1967 for his sculpture Two Seated Figures (The King and Queen). Before the Douglas Hyde gallery there was an exhibition space in the basement of the Berkeley Library. The sculpture belonged to the artist, who recalled it after becoming dissatisfied with its site. The plinth remains to baffle visitors, although Moore subsequently gifted Reclining Connected Forms of 1969 to the College. It can be found in Library Square. Art returned to the library’s podium in 1983 with Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro’s (b. 1926) ‘sfera con sfera’ (‘Sphere within sphere’).
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The Berkeley Library is a Protected Structure and is recognised internationally as an exemplary building of its generation. Speaking at the launch of an exhibition in the Architectural Archive celebrating 50 years of the Berkeley Library Paul Koralek remarked "Berkeley Library really did change my life" and his building really did change the perception of late modern architecture in Ireland.