Bookish, but dead mod

Jay Merrick

Unloved, dingy, almost prison-like. Oxford's New Bodleian Library has always been a unique oddball among the university's architectural treasures – a bland lump on the corner of Broad Street and Parks Road. Inside, the 11 levels of book stacks constipated the core of the library, and gave it a leaden atmosphere. But when it reopens on 21 March as the Weston Library, it will be a hey presto moment for the city. The building has been transformed, and will become a magnet for pathological swots, local café society, and legions of tourists.

The Grade II listed building was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott in the 1930s, and it's architecture is vague – sort of classical, sort of modernist, sort of Arts and Crafts. The façade facing Broad Street was positively anti-social, with a low podium wall and a "lifted" row of small ground floor windows that effectively said: Keep Out.

The four-year makeover of the Grade II listed library, led by the architect Jim Eyre and his practice Wilkinson Eyre, is radical. Eyre is an unvague modernist, and apart from one somewhat surprising element in his scheme – a 15 th century portal from the Ascot Park estate, used as an entrance to the readers' admissions room – he has gone about his work with surgical precision, removing most of the Edwardian guts from Gilbert Scott's hulk, and sewing in entirely new bibliophiliac organs.

These include state-of-the-art storage for special collections of books, maps, and manuscripts; new spaces for academic research, including three reading rooms with 147 seats and 27 study carrels; a digital media centre; a rather spiffing elevated eyrie for visiting scholars; 2.5km of open access bookshelves; and new public facilities, including exhibition spaces, a shop, and a Benugo café. The dreary old New Bod has become the Mod Bod.

It's as if a coffin has been opened. For the first time, shafts of natural light fall into parts of the central core and the reading rooms, and there is the strong sense of a building that now breathes easily, rather than holds its stale bookish breath. Crucially, the sociopathic façade facing Broad Street has been given a wide, come-right-in entrance and street threshold.

This element of the design isn't dramatic, but it's an absolutely key demonstration of architectural and urban civility which makes the Weston Library's public, full-access qualities immediately obvious. About one thousand students and other academics use the library every day, but this is a building you could amble into for a quick flat white, carrying a poseur's copy of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the latest GQ, or your £10 meal-for-two from Marks & Spencer in a plastic bag.

Jim Eyre's pivotal decision was to clear out most of the core of the building, from the ground floor up, retaining three-storeys of book stacks in the basement, and another three higher up in the building. The basement stacks alone have 39km of storage space for up to 1.4million rare books, manuscripts, archives, music, ephemera, and maps. For the time being, the library will hold only 500,000 items from its original cache of 1.5m books, with the rest stored off-site.

From the sweeping Blackwell Hall public space on the ground floor – with a 16 th century Sheldon tapestry on one wall – the only thing that tells you the building might be a library is the new suspended, three-sided open access glazed gallery, whose bookshelves and angular, glazed balconies hover above you.

The gallery is part of huge new structure which fills most of the original central space; daylight comes in from new skylights, and from the building's original long slit-windows. And there's even greater drama at the top of the library, where a new terrace sets up a superb southerly view across Oxford's college spires and rooftops.

The fundamental purpose of the Weston Library is to provide excellent research conditions. And so, it's not just about books, brains, and humidity control. It's also about bottoms. "We always felt you needed a feeling of warmth and comfort in the reading rooms, because some people sit in them for 10 or 11 hours at a time," Eyre explains. They now sit in bottom-up comfort, in svelte limited edition oak chairs designed by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, in rooms washed with just the right amount of natural light; perfect for what the librarian, Richard Ovenden, describes as "intense study".

Most of the outer girdle of the library's Edwardian rooms, corridors, and transition spaces have been retained or remodelled into new spaces, and great care has been taken to highlight the most notable original architectural details. They include the now fully revealed decorative wooden screen at the entrance of the ex-catalogue room, which has been transformed into the naturally lit Mackerras reading room; the curved invigilator's desk has been rebuilt precisely as per Gilbert Scott's original drawings, as have his peculiar wooden chandeliers.

The original readers' entrance vestibule (which has doubled as an electrical store cupboard) has been renovated, and the stonework on the south and east elevations, including the carved cartouches above the new entrance and the original single-glazed aluminium windows, have been cleaned.

Some improvements will barely be noticed, but are vital to the completeness of the makeover. Sections of Scott's geometrically patterned lino have been replicated, and the desks in the Commonwealth reading room were widened to accept laptops. The marked improvements in back-of-house working conditions is typified by the transformation of the blacked out photographic room into a light-filled conservation centre, with views over the gardens of St John's College.

The reinvention of the New Bodleian, and the graphic punch of its sharp-edged new features, will startle more than a few people. Jim Eyre has, quite correctly, made no attempt to design the interventions to make them blend in with the bogus gravitas of Giles Gilbert Scott's deliberately tea-stained limestone walls, or some of his effete decorative features. The great new ark of tomes and note-taking and thought that now hangs above the Blackwell Hall is the shape of swotting for decades to come, here, at the corner of Broad Street and Parks Road.

This article was first written for The Independent on 9 March 2015.