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Arts & Culture History

‘Kensington, where is your sense of beauty?’

  • March 7, 2022
  • 4 min read
‘Kensington, where is your sense of beauty?’

by Sophie Pretorius

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Kensington Central Library was built between 1958 and 1960, on the site of what had been a gothic house named The Abbey, bombed during the war.

It was part of a large, ambitious municipal project to replace the old library, located at Vestry Hall, Kensington High Street, built in 1889, which had officially been declared too small to hold the borough’s bibliographic holdings in 1938. In 1955 the commission for the library with us now on Hornton Street and Phillimore Walk was given to Emanuel Vincent Harris (1876-1971) and was part of the last high-profile commission the architect received in his lifetime. It was built in his style; that of the English Neo-Renaissance, in a similar vein to the historically adaptive style of Lutyens (born in Kensington), but with bold austerity and very little exterior flair. 

Kensington Central Library has been described as a ‘well mannered’, ‘manly’ building, and it certainly provided, and continues to provide, the space and utility it had been constructed for. It was, however, not well-liked by the people of Kensington and Chelsea, who, admirably, protested its erection. That is not to say I dislike the building; only, I respect their thinking at all about the connoisseurial direction of state building programmes, enough to sacrifice their time and poster paint. The banners at the protest read, ‘Britain builds blindly’ and, ‘Kensington, where is your sense of beauty?’. One even went as far as to call the building a ‘fake’.

They wanted something modern and innovative, after the war they wanted real rebirth, not revival or rehashing. Perhaps I am showing my age, or lack thereof, but I find it difficult to imagine a new library today being objected to on the grounds of aesthetics. Perhaps I also find it difficult to imagine a new library being built at all. The appetite for the modern is also something I find startling.

Being modern has had something of a botched facelift since 1960. Mistrust of the up-to-the-minute, especially in places of community learning, is something at least I feel quite strongly. There are currently endless petitions to keep historic buildings up, but I know of none immediately that loudly ask for something shiny and new. Certainly, the medium of street protest is now not often used to voice opinion on local architectural commissioning practices. 

Harris knew his buildings were unpopular in some circles but was secure and confident in his style. He is reported to have said in his acceptance speech for the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in 1951, “Look, a lot of you here tonight don’t like what I do, and I don’t like what a lot of you do …” 

Despite its hard-faced, civil exterior, the interior of the building has surprisingly bold décor, with striped square pillars supporting throughout. The floor originally bore a pattern of very large, concentric, almost op-art squares. The pillars survive, the floors do not.

The building also houses one of Kensington’s supreme treasures, David Walker, Local Studies Librarian for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the virtuoso behind The Library Time Machine blog. He and his colleges’ gentle, clear- eyed, careful exploration of the holdings of the library, and of the general history of the borough have saved me many hours, as an historian. His passion for the idealistic human project that is a library is palpable in all his work, and his expertise on things RBKC is matched by very few. He, as a flattering personification of the athenaeum, is where Kensington’s sense of beauty, and itself, resides.

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Sophie Pretorius

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