Trinity’s Berkeley Library is a Brutalist classic
Without a doubt, Ireland’s finest example of brutalism is 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 catapulting onto the world stage is as inspiring today as it was sixty years ago.
The Sixties were an exciting time for university design in Ireland, with Andrzej and Danuta Wejchert’s master plan for UCD and student accommodation blocks by Andy Devane (of RKD Architects) and St Patrick’s Chapel College (now DCU). During the 1940s and 1950s, Trinity College Dublin was rapidly running out of space for its growing number of students and books. Until 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 (now Fellows Square) between the old library and the Deane & Woodward Museum building (1857).
In 1960, Trinity College held an international architectural competition with the brief that the new library would be about 20th century architecture. It would receive 218 submissions from twenty-nine countries. The competition was won by a young London architecture graduate, Paul Koralek (1933 – 2020), who had never visited the site. After graduating in architecture from the AA (Architectural Association School of Architecture) in London, Koralek worked with Marcel Breuer in New York and it was on his kitchen table in his small apartment that Koralek designed the library . Koralek had made a pact with his classmates Peter Ahrends (b. 1933) and Richard Burton (1933 – 2017) that if one of them was successful, he would invite the other two to form their own architectural firm , which they did after winning the Berkeley competition, becoming ABK Architects.
The judges were impressed with the idea of the new library stepping back from its 18th and 19th century neighbors to create a piazza-like podium. It also featured an innovative use of concrete poured into Douglas fir moulds, giving the impression of wood grain on the surface of the concrete slabs. The podium also included an underground link to the East Pavilion of the Old Library. The building is finished in cut stone granite and exposed concrete, which is a nod to the materials of the old library and museum building. The rectangular shape of the building contrasts with a sequence of curved floor-to-ceiling windows in bronze frames. The glass, like the walls, is worked by hand.
This flat-roofed cube is deceptively large, with three stories above a basement.
The basement under the library extends beyond the building footprint and under the podium forecourt, providing room for large amounts of storage. Berkeley is a copyright library containing nearly seven million books, one million of which are on-site and the rest kept off-site in a warehouse in Santry.
The completed bookcase was different from the winning design. The contest evaluators saw Koralek’s talent and decided to guide him with the craftsmen and builders involved in the project. Master builders G&T Crampton began construction in 1964. The original plans specified precast concrete, i.e. walls fabricated off-site and then assembled on-site, but Ireland did not have the technology to hand. era. Cramptons was therefore tasked with pouring in place using formwork, lending a handcrafted and intimate quality to what might otherwise be quite intimidating concrete surfaces.
Inside the library is a unique reading experience where the reader comes first and offers a variety of spaces ranging from traditional rows of reading desks to private reading nooks. Remarkably for such a laborious building, most of the original features are intact, including built-in concrete desks, window seats, plywood shelving, vinyl flooring, and “No Smoking” notice lettering and “Silence is requested”. The original concrete reception counter has been replaced, but a similar counter can be seen in Iveagh Hall on the ground floor. The building is surprisingly bright with plenty of natural light channeled through each floor from the roof. Reinforced concrete columns scattered throughout the building are elegantly smooth with curved edges.
ABK Architects were asked again to design the Arts Block (1968 – 78), again a brutalist building with a cascading facade redefining the square and the Douglas Hyde Gallery (1978) next to the Nassau Street entrance from campus. Gallery 1 at the Douglas Hyde is a double-height space which is unusually approached by a cantilevered staircase, the formwork executed by carpenter Liam Foran who was only nineteen at the time. Gallery 2 was designed by McCullough Mulvin Architects and opened in 2001. It has a wonderfully intricate access door that functions as a camera opening 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). Prior to the Douglas Hyde Gallery, there was an exhibition space in the basement of the Berkeley Library. The sculpture belonged to the artist, who called it back after becoming dissatisfied with its location. The plinth remains to confuse visitors, although Moore later offered 1969’s Reclining Connected Forms to the College. It is located in the library square. Art returned to the library podium in 1983 with Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro (b. 1926) “sfera con sfera” (“Sphere within sphere”).
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The Berkeley Library is a protected structure and is internationally recognized as an exemplary building of its generation. Speaking at the launch of an exhibit in the Architectural Archives celebrating 50 years of the Berkeley Library, Paul Koralek remarked that “Berkeley Library has really changed my life” and its building has really changed the perception of late modern architecture in Ireland.