Dec 07, 2019 Last Updated 10:52 AM, Aug 14, 2019

A novel restoration at Manchester Central Library

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Through a series of controlled interventions, Manchester Central Library has been transformed, updated and refurbished on its existing site and within the existing building envelope. The design, created by Ryder Architecture, has been driven by Manchester City Council's commitment to reshaping the way library, information and archive services are delivered.


Manchester Central Library’s transformation is part of a wider refurbishment of Manchester’s Town Hall complex, a civic complex that ranks amongst the best in any British city outside London. The Town Hall, Town Hall Extension and Central Library are buildings of national significance, some of the very best examples of the architecture of their period. Albert Square and St Peter’s Square are major public spaces at the heart of the city and provide a suitably grand setting for these important civic buildings.

Ryder’s architecturally ambitious design has transformed a beautiful, well-loved but internally hamstrung building into a cohesive and coherent delight, able to fulfil its practical purpose for decades to come.

The scale of the two main interventions – removing the book stacks from the core of the building and installing a new vertical circulation provision – was considerable, likened to removing the fruitcake filling from a wedding cake and replacing it with sponge, all without disturbing the icing.

Yet scooping out the entire innards of the building and putting in a radically different new structure was vital to renewing Manchester Central Library, making a completely accessible, legible and uplifting space whose inherent flexibility would see it loved and used for its next 80 years – and beyond.

Ease of navigation

The Central Library has become home for a new integrated archive service, Archives+, the city’s treasure house and the main knowledge hub for information. The design has aimed to retain and enhance the original look and cherished ambience of this much loved building whilst providing it with modern facilities and a continued relevance for the next part of its life. Key elements of the design include:

  • Attractive and simple to use layout with intuitive wayfinding
  • Space to house non-fiction and reference collections
  • Facilities and technologies to showcase special collections
  • Well-designed study spaces, for individual and group learning
  • Spaces which are flexible and adaptable, to support a range of activities
  • Performance and events space
  • Maximising income generation by creating meeting rooms and a performance area
  • Emphasising the library as a destination and meeting place
  • Clear customer, rather than collection, focus
  • Accessible and inclusive

The whole new internal structure was designed to provide the main stimulus for navigating around the building, overcoming the previous confusion with a rational and simple way for moving easily, reaching one’s chosen destination and finding delights along the way.

Having removed the library theatre to a separate building, the basement levels contain all the archive storage, allowing differing materials, paper, film and magnetic media, and photographic items, to be stored appropriately. The existing cafe was removed, and space created for a flexible exhibition and interpretation space, working as an extension to the Shakespeare Hall above. This level also contains a public connection to the new library space created in the adjacent Town Hall Extension as well as plant and service areas.

The Ground Floor is the public heart of the building, providing a welcoming orientation space with the main public enquiry point. Daylight flows through the existing perimeter windows and through the opening to the Great Hall above, which allows light from the glazed area in the dome to penetrate down through the first floor.

Former glory

The Shakespeare Hall has been restored to its original splendour and formality by removing all the non-original additions, creating an impressive arrival space.

This level contains the public reading room and archive search room, which take advantage of the controlled northern light, whilst the southern quadrant houses flexible learning and performance spaces. A large interactive exhibition space uses elements from the archive to tell the story of Manchester, and has the flexibility to accommodate changing exhibitions. A new cafe provides both traditional and lounge seating.

The spaces on the first floor are of high heritage significance, and have been returned to their original glory. The Great Hall reading room, resplendent with its Scagliola columns, takes the central space under a domed roof, with books, The Henry Watson Music Library and differing types of study spaces occupying the outer ring.

Having removed the majority of the book stack supported floor, the new floor is detailed so it appears to have slid into position with a glass perimeter ring to emphasise the dynamic of what has been done.

Unified appearance

The old central desk is now an oculus, sitting in a glazed ring which provides both daylight into the heart of the new ground floor public space and views up to the historic domed ceiling. These uplifting sight-lines between the ground floor and the rest of the building create a sense of unity in a building which was hitherto only experienced as separated elements.

The second floor rooms, including original panelled committee rooms, provide a suite of flexible meeting and breakout spaces. The remainder of the floor is open library space providing facilities and resources for the local business community.

The third floor provides staff work areas and meeting rooms, plus a conservation studio space, north facing, for both paper and film media.

The fourth floor, originally designed as stack storage and bindery, will be open to the public, providing additional library space and a destination for visitors at the top of the building.

Peter Buchan, Senior Partner of Ryder Architecture, explains: “We saw that this listed building was designed to be imposing in a civic way, but not particularly welcoming or inclusive. Our challenge was how to reverse this whilst also restoring the significant key spaces and maintaining the spirit and integrity of the building. We saw what needed to be done at our first visit to the building. Bookstacks took up all of the inside of the building below the main reading room. The floors were supported on them. We scooped it all out, replacing them with new public floors. We negotiated ways around and through the key heritage spaces to open up a spectacular new open vertical circulation route, allowing visitors to read and experience the whole building in an entirely new way.”

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