Thrice shortlisted but never before leaping over the finish line to victory, London-based studio Níall McLaughlin Architects has won the Royal British Institute (RIBA)’s 26th Stirling Prize for its Magdalene College Library at the University of Cambridge.
A late-in-the-game bookies’ favorite to win the coveted annual prize for Britain’s best new building, the library is timeless and grand, its design defined by gabled pitched roofs, intricate brickwork, soaring timber interiors, bay windows, and chimneys aplenty. It tips its hat to its stately surroundings while embracing modern sustainability practices (chiefly engineered wood, passive ventilation, and natural lighting strategies) and the evolving needs of higher education students living and learning in the 21st century. Accessibility was a key concern of the design as was wellbeing and longevity (more on that later).
The New Library at Magdalene College replaces the Grade I–listed Pepys Library, located within a 17th-century building that anchors the school’s riverside campus in northwestern Cambridge. While that building is rightfully vaunted, it is also a relic and its study spaces have proven to be too small and too stuffy for contemporary learning despite past revamps (none of them all that recent). Open to students 24 hours a day and at turns spacious and intimate where it needs to be, McLaughlin Architects’ 16,400-square-foot new library is flexible, flooded with natural light, and familiar, carrying over the multiple nooks and crannies that were an endearing hallmark of its predecessor. Like the Pepys Building, it also presents itself as a monument meant to stand forever and a day.
The new library boasts more than double the amount of study-dedicated space then the Pepys Library and has the capacity to expand its current collection of books by 50 percent. It is also home to an art gallery and archival space.
In the winner’s announcement, RIBA President Simon Allford heralded the “sophisticated, generous” New Library at Magdalene College as a “solid and confident, yet deferential new kid on the college block.”
“Students have been gifted a calm, sequence of connected spaces where they, and future generations, will be able to contemplate and congregate, enjoying it both together and apart,” Allford added. “The overarching commitment to build something that will stand the test of time can be felt in every material and detail, and from every viewpoint. This is the epitome of how to build for the long-term.”
As for exactly how long-term the library was designed and built to last, it boasts a 400-year life expectancy—an impressive amount of time for a college that first founded nearly 600 years ago in 1428 as a Benedictine hostel. Today, Magdalene College ranks as one of the smaller of Cambridge’s 31 constituent colleges.
Níall McLaughlin Architects’ first RIBA Stirling Prize win follows last year’s triumph by Grafton Architects for Kingston University London’s Townhouse, a multifaceted student hub— the Dublin-based firm’s inaugural built project in the United Kingdom. (Keep out an eye for AN’s forthcoming interview with Grafton’s Pritzker Prize–winning partners and cofounders Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell on their inaugural stateside project, the Anthony Timberlands Center for Design and Materials Innovation at the University of Arkansas.)
The (London-heavy) shortlist for the 2022 RIBA Stirling Prize included 100 Liverpool Street by Hopkins Architects (London); Forth Valley College – Falkirk Campus by Reiach and Hall Architects (Falkirk, Scotland); Hackney New Primary School and 333 Kingsland Road by Henley Halebrown (London); Orchard Gardens, Elephant Park by Panter Hudspith Architects (London), and the Sands End Arts and Community Centre by Mae Architects (London).
First established in 1991 and somewhat of a constant for new commissions on the historic campuses of Oxford and Cambridge, Níall McLaughlin Architects was previously shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2018, 2015, and in 2013 for its magnificent (and similarly deferential) timber Bishop Edward King Chapel. While other education projects (including, as mentioned, last year’s awardee) have won the RIBA Stirling Prize, a relatively new architecture award launched in 1996, this year’s win for the New Library at Magdalene College marks the first time that a college has triumphed as Níall McLaughlin pointed out in a statement, going on to note: “It is good to celebrate the contribution these remarkable communities have made to the development of modern architectural culture in Britain.”
His full statement reads:
“The Magdalene College Library is a work of many hands and many minds. The College created the possibility for success in the way that they initiated and managed the project. The appointment of designers, consultants, builders, and craftsmen was treated with care. Throughout the development process, our team was supported and robustly questioned in our decisions. We knew we were building for a client who was motivated to achieve the best outcome. Our responsibility to the history and future development of this learning community was clear. We were asked to build for the long-term using present resources wisely.”
Allford was joined this year on the prize jury by architects Kirsten Lees of Grimshaw and Glenn Howells along with artist Chris Ofili. The jury citation noted:
“The library combines load-bearing brickwork with exquisitely detailed horizontal engineered timber structure to establish a lofty, surprisingly vertical space with a complex three-dimensional tartan grid. The library draws on familiar predilections from previous McLaughlin projects –the references to Louis Kahn’s handling of oak panelled window assemblies for example, via the housing for Summerville college, while also creating something wholly particular within the setting of the wider college. As with the best of the city’s many libraries, a great diversity of spaces to read and work are established, and reflecting its planned longevity, the building feels nicely slack–bookshelves are barely half filled and an extraordinary sense of space pervades, like inhabiting a hugely luxurious treehouse.”
The jury also called out the building’s “engagement with environmental design principles,” noting that it meets or exceeds multiple RIBA sustainability benchmarks, particularly with regard to energy performance and whole-life carbon considerations.
The New Magdalene College Library was completed in October 2021. Its cost has not been disclosed.