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The Influence of Ceilings on The User’s Experience of The British Library, London

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“Thirty-five years of planning, controversy and bitter recrimination” is what was written of The British Library two years before it opened it’s doors in 1998. Designed due to a Parliament Act in 1972, decreeing the combination of six different archives. The building, designed by Colin St John Wilson and MJ Long, was built amongst conflict around its construction. At the time Wilson was first asked to create a design based at Bloomsbury, but financial and spatial reasons caused a relocation to St Pancras. Conflict on the spending of government money to create the library building was felt on multiple sides. Traditionalists like the Regular Reader’s Group mourned the loss of the Bloomsbury Reader’s Room, and cast aspersions on the St Pancras Library throughout its construction: “Eighteen years later, the grand intentions lie in tatters”. Futurists predicted the technological age and subsequent obsolescence of the Library, and declared it wasting the taxes. Indeed, the massive scale of the final proposal of the building was expensive, and as a result the design had to be split into three phases, of which ultimately only the first was built. Wilson and Long drew “widely upon the tradition of the English Free School, promoted by William Morris and John Ruskin”. This organic tradition was described by Ruskin as “the only rational architecture… that which can fit itself most easily into all services, vulgar or noble”. It reflects ‘form follows function’, and in the earliest stages, Wilson designed for function. The layout of the building is dictated by it, with reading rooms needing daylight placed at the top of the buildings, while exhibition rooms, needing none, are situated on the bottom floor. The ceilings follow the same concept, the architect’s main concerns are with the access of daylight to the building, and so the form of the ceiling comes with roof lanterns and clerestories. He also conforms to this organic school of thought by using natural materials with their own finishes like marble or bronze.

The Public’s entry to the British Library is directed into the Entrance Hall, which opens onto a view of the main concourse organised around the central towering King’s Library. This is the only entry to the public, with two entrances from the roads surrounding the site into the piazza. Entrance into the piazza before entering the interior of the building creates some calm for the viewer, and separates them from the frantic roads of central London. This first look at the interior of the building is vital, as it is the viewer’s first experience of the interior and the atmosphere Wilson is trying to achieve. The scale of the building from the entryway is enormous, and could be intimidating to a visitor but, the space is not intimidating, but draws the visitor in. The intimidating effect of the height of the ceiling is mitigated by increasing the height of the ceiling in steps from low at the threshold, to the high ceiling at the centre of the room. Within this wave-like patterned ceiling, clerestories and roof lights enable natural daylight to filter through to the entryway and cast patterns of light across the walls. This gradual increase in the height of the ceiling makes the space enticing, and the scale then enables the visitor to “instantly see the general distribution of elements in the building, and the route or point of entry to all the main destinations”. The visitor can also see people using the space on all levels, creating a sense of activity. These views of others in this space increases an atmosphere of interconnectivity and openness in the building, signifying the openness and access to knowledge that the Library facilitates. Interrupting this enormous space are two bridges across the concourse, they connect the east and west wings of the building which flank the main concourse. These bridges “assert the ‘normal’ dimension of floor height” to the viewer, which gives them a sense of uniformity in the colossal space. Beyond these bridges is the King’s Library, and the spaces in use within the library, with the light levels becoming dimmer as you move further into the main concourse. Within the main concourse, The King’s Library furthers the enormous sense of the space, this tower of rare books seems eternal. The separation between these spaces and the piazza using a large space filled with daylight creates a transitory space between the piazza and the main library.

Whereas the main concourse is open to the public, the eleven different reading rooms are a more private space. Wilson believed in the “overriding importance that [the architects] attach[ed] to natural daylight as the ambient source of light wherever possible”. Within the reading rooms themselves this creates a pleasant workspace. With the reading rooms being used for long-term study, the natural daylight filtered into the room constantly varies, removing “the threat of monotony” to the reader. The ceilings aid the introduction of natural light particularly in the Humanities and Maps reading rooms. A room with three floors, each level receding to create variant spaces of double or triple height spaces, this room does a brilliant job of naturally lighting several floors and creating a variety of spaces in which to work. The overhead ceiling of the humanities reading rooms uses clerestories and roof lanterns set into the pitched roof of the building to maximise the daylight reaching all levels of the room, and then the roof slopes to the floor so as to allow the light to reach the ground without creating shadows. The added benefit of this ceiling light means it allows the walls at ground level on each floor to be used for books and maximise the amount of open access to books. The changing light levels on differing floors, whether you be within reach of the natural light from above, or sheltered by the outcropping higher floors provide a variety that the Bloomsbury Reading Rooms failed to provide. On the ceiling of the single height spaces between floors, “direct fluorescent lights are regularly spaced” which provide a constant background light to work with. Within other reading rooms, similar methods are used to gain the natural daylight effect. In the African and Asian Studies room, clerestories situated above head height, gaining the same benefit of space for material storage on the walls, achieves the same effect and the ceiling space is then used for ventilation. In the sciences reading room, a triple height space exists linking all three floors as “the working convenience of the readers was considered to be worth a certain loss of floor space” between all the floors of the reading room creates two balconies above the first floor which are mirrored on the opposite wall with double height windows. This natural daylight aspect is crucial, and best introduced through ceiling elements, it gives the workspace an organic sense to it, and makes the atmosphere more comfortable and less hard-wearing as you work.

When designing the building, Wilson and Long realised that within the building there were going to be different needs for the building, and so the layout of the building was designed modularly. This resulted in the main entryway, main concourse and flanking wings of reading rooms, but around the building there are still many other spaces, like staff offices, the conference room, the main auditorium and the exhibition rooms. Most spaces, public or private are still designed with the primary goal of allowing as much natural daylight access as possible, although there is also the possibility of blackout as well. The exhibition rooms, with their extensive collection of rare and precious material, it has large spaces with no natural daylight as the material on show needs specific temperature and lighting requirements for conservation. “Re-entering the main concourse can be likened to emerging into daylight from the mouth of a cave”. High ceilings in the main area give a flexibility to the space and the size of the exhibitions they may show. In the restaurant, the ceiling uses clerestories and floor height windows to create maximum height, but the shape of ceiling may remind a visitor of the reading rooms in the main library. Other public spaces, like the café, are placed within the main concourse of the library, underneath the six storey high ceiling to feel the enormity of the space. Below ground, the storage spaces for the books were more utilitarian than above ground. Five floors of storage, each floor has simple concrete ceilings with services running along them. From the exterior of the building, the pitched roofs enable water runoff and the long roofs imitate the gothic style, a stem style of the English Free School, of St Pancras. On the roof, Wilson also a designed a roof terrace, a quiet place for relaxation open to the elements.

Although during construction, the British Library was contested by many, it finished after thirty-seven years, and it has since been met with positivity. This attitude was imitated some years before the doors opened to the public in 1998, with this being said of the humanities reading room: “The room is sensational… lit by a kind of inverse lantern which you do not immediately see”, and since that sentiment has been echoed. Worries at the time that the Library would become obsolete have been annuled, the rise of the technological age proving to work in tandem with the old methods of research. Without the ceilings designed as they are by Wilson, the Library would be utterly crippled in it’s endeavour for a comfortable workspace for the reader, and a pleasant visit for a viewer. The incorporation of natural daylight is vital in Wilson’s design and without the roof lanterns, clerestories, and access to roof terraces, the experience of the user would be different, and not for the better. A loss of the light provided by the ceilings would cause not only a departure from the aim for good workspace, but a departure from the organic nature of the English Free School it’s design follows. 

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The Influence Of Ceilings On The User’s Experience Of The British Library, London. (2021, March 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from
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