Extension John Rylands 02

Best of the North West | John Rylands Library extension, Manchester

How do you choose “one of the best UK buildings of the 2000s”? Twenty years is a really long time to reflect on and we architects cover a lot of buildings in that time, writes Jade Chau of Bennetts Associates.

Therefore I think there is one key quality that the building should exude. The building simply needs to be: memorable. Meaning, it should be special, unforgettable and impactful.

The building I have chosen is the 2007 extension works by Austin:Smith-Lord with Lloyd Evans Prichard to Basil Champneys’ John Rylands Library in Manchester, built in 1900.  This extension is a public building for the Mancunian community as well as the many tourists who annually visit Manchester. A combination of refurbishment works to a heritage asset, as well as new architectural interventions including a new public entrance, café, shop and improved access and circulation – there is a lot to be said and learnt about this understated building.

JADE CHAU 2017 SmlFor me, this building is memorable. I was a student at the Manchester School of Architecture when this project was in construction and at the time, the architectural trends were ‘Super Dutch’ or ‘Suave Swiss’ design. When my young-self visited this building, I was struck by how simple the new addition appeared in response to an intricate and complex historical building. I have always been interested in working with existing buildings and there are many ways to approach works to existing buildings.

The extension is an excellent addition to a building that is 120 years old – not an easy feat to achieve; sometimes combining new and old can go very wrong. Here, two very different buildings with very different identities work harmoniously. ASL’s new bright, white interiors and glazed bridges linking to Champneys’ ornate, moody neo-Gothic grade one-listed building are simple, elegant, subtle and sensitive. A fabulous juxtaposition.

As a student I remember reading critics’ feedback of the extension, where the “new extension sucked the life out of the old” and I laughed out loud to this. Mixing new and old will always bring controversy and debate – and I say, long may it continue. That is all part of the continuity and development of the built environment and the layers we, architects, add to history.

Contrasting new and old – where the identity of each is visible and does not detract from each other – is a commendable approach to working with existing buildings.  Sometimes architects wish to continue in the style of the existing fabric, but it can turn out pastiche. I would rather accept and respect the existing, while contributing my own thoughtful addition. I think Austin:Smith-Lord and Lloyd Evans Prichard have done just that with the extension to John Rylands Library Manchester building – and 15 years on, it still looks sharp.

If anything, I think the new calm, modern extension accentuates Champneys’ detailed late-Victorian masterpiece.

Your Comments

Read our comments policy here

Great choice. Projects like this, and the Whitworth extension so often get overlooked.

By Anonymous

I think “new” versus “old” is a false dichotomy. Why does “new” always have to mean minimal – this is “sparse” versus “old”, and, as such, looks terrible. Also, massive detriment to the experience of the building that the modern entrance forces you to enter from the site, rather than the grand front doors as was originally intended.

By Poppycock

I’m really enjoying this series as the contributors & their nominations are so varied & thoughtful. Bringing JRL into full visibility & public access was at least half a century overdue. The DDA solution (whilst not without compromise) grants full wheelchair access to the reading room & clearly involved having to persuade the client (the Librarian) that he must sacrifice his office (in order that a new door could be inserted into an external wall, to allow wheelchair access from the lift. Genius.

By Phil Griffin

My favourite

By Tom S

Agree. I recently took a group of overseas Visitors to look at what is my favourite building in Manchester.


Hear, hear to inclusive design and allowing more people the opportunity to visit and experience Champneys’ stunning library!

By Architect