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Beautiful Buildings: Bristol Central Library

Located adjacent to Bristol Cathedral, Bristol Central Library is a flagship example of fine Edwardian architecture.
Located adjacent to Bristol Cathedral, Bristol Central Library is a flagship example of fine Edwardian architecture.

Thousands of books and articles have been kept in this stunning Bristol landmark for over a hundred years. Built in 1906, Bristol Central Library draws students and adults alike from across the city to study and read in a relaxed environment, surrounded by architectural details bordering the ceiling and door frames. Inspired by Mackintosh’s Glasgow Art School, Bristol Central Library shifted the Modern Movement of architecture into gear.

After £50,000 was set aside in a design competition for a new Bristol Library in 1901, the firm of H. Percy Adams won with designs by his assistant Charles Holden (1875-1960). Costing only £30,000, the exterior of the building to the north is a blend of Tudor Revival and Modern Movement styles, designed to harmonise with the adjoining Abbey Gatehouse which leads down the hill on the south side and which’s earliest parts date to around 1170. The large brickwork and detailing pioneered the Modern architectural movement in Bristol, with many other buildings subsequently following this style. With its towers and buttresses the vertical architecture is no less impressive than the intricate brickwork and overall plan. The south and east fronts of the building really demonstrate the importance of “vertical architecture” – the building’s various projections and recessions, inspired by Glasgow Art School, give it a great sense of depth.

'Projections' and 'recessions' on the south side of the Library.
Projections and recessions on the south side of the library.

However, it’s intriguing to note that the interior architecture doesn’t match the exterior. Inside the library one finds classic high arches, reminiscent of Neoclassical style architecture from the mid 18th Century. These large arches create high ceilings and breathtaking spaces. My favourite is the main entrance hall, with its arched vaulting faced in turquoise glass mosaic that glistens and reflects light. Most use Bristol Central Library for the main reading room located at the heart of the library. The double height space is flooded with light by windows following the arch of the ceiling and it fills a space which includes the first floor and two tiers of galleries. This may be the most tranquil place in central Bristol apart from the adjacent Cathedral. Furnished with teak chairs and tables as instructed by Holden himself, the library has been designed with the finer details in mind.

Bristol Central Library is a stunning example of Neoclassical vaulting and the fine detail in the terquoise glass ceiling creates a rich and even regal atmosphere.
Bristol Central Library is a stunning example of Neoclassical vaulting and the fine detail in the turquoise glass ceiling creates a rich and even regal atmosphere.

Upon entering Bristol Central Library I marvel at the delightful, playful interior architecture that one would never expect looking at the Edwardian Free Style exterior. The high ceilings and arches, coupled with a contemplative atmosphere, make this beautiful building one of the best places in Bristol to sit down and read a book.