ATRIUMS: we need to talk

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This is yet another thing I’ve been ranting about on Twitter long enough that it justifies me simply blogging about it, so that I can then just re-post it every once in a while, much as I can do now about Digital Natives.


So here’s the thing:  people troll me with library atriums on Twitter .    For example:


…and so on.

They are my friends, I love them, it’s funny.  And yet.  It’s not funny that people who pay for the construction of academic buildings (including libraries!) persist in thinking that atriums are a GREAT IDEA for their building.


What do atriums perform?  That the space is impressive?  That it’s awesome?  Do we want our University buildings to be awesome?  Clever, sure.  Useful, certainly.  I’d also argue for beautiful, and functional.  We should aspire to all of that.

Atriums are not necessary for any of those things.  They can in fact get in the way of several of those things:  in particular:  useful and functional.

One exception is the Atrium in the LSE, which contains a large spiral staircase, making highly visible how you can navigate up through the building.

There is another space that I thought was an Atrium, and therefore worthy of my ire, but it turns out the glassed-in space of the SSEES building at UCL is not an atrium but instead a very important light well and ventilation shaft, and is in fact the reason that SSEES is able to have that building (for their department and their library) at all.  As my colleague Lesley Pitman told me (and I am grateful to her for actual facts, as I would like for my rants to be relatively well-informed):

” Essentially, if we didn’t have it, we probably wouldn’t have the building, or at least we would only have one that is considerably smaller and opened several years later. Its purpose is not primarily aesthetic. Instead it is a key element of the innovative natural ventilation system that was the main selling point to UCL in choosing the architects, and was the main reason that we got planning permission from Camden Council in a very difficult part of London in record time. It fitted their environmental agenda, as it did for UCL too…We had an enormous challenge trying to find somewhere for the School to be rehoused, and in the end we were lucky to get what is a very tightly restricted location – surrounded on 3 sides by other buildings and with restrictions on how high and how low we could build. The architects who won the contract won because of their approach to ventilating the building without any air conditioning at all. This allowed for the unusual shape of the building, including the fact that the curve at the back takes it much closer to a neighbouring building than we would otherwise have been allowed to be. We have given up no space at all to air conditioning plant, and there is no background noise of air con in the building. Instead the air flows through the front staircase, through the automatic windows, and through the lightwell, in a multitude of complicated ways depending on the weather.”

The whole story of SSEES is a fascinating case study in practical compromises necessary for institutional buildings to happen in the first place.  Lesley wrote about it here.  So this is an example of a big hole in a building that has a purpose, and it’s really really not the self-aggrandizement of either the architect or of the academic institution.

Lest by rant be entirely derailed by facts, do let us remember that seldom are big holes in your library as functional as the ones in SSEES or the LSE Libraries.

For the most part Atriums are like the one in my own library, huge open spaces where useful floors could be.


also for example (a response to the first draft of this blogpost):


Why, WHY are architects spending time designing buildings where space is deliberately not-used?  It’s not just a problem for London universities, or institutions in any city where real estate prices are crazy-high.  Any university building, once built, is going to be stretched to its limits in no time by increased student numbers, escalating demand for space.  There’s never enough square footage to go around.

Putting an atrium into a building isn’t just about light, or an airy feel to the place.  It’s about demonstrating just how much the institution thinks it doesn’t have to use that space.  It’s a middle finger of an architectural detail, in a context where university students and staff don’t have enough places to go and do what they need for their work, their degrees, their scholarship.

And if you ask me what architects should do instead, I will happily say, I don’t know, but maybe as they are fairly clever individuals, they could come up with some creative and effective alternatives all by themselves.  Rather than using atriums as shorthand for “important buildings” or “impressive spaces” or “designed by an architect,” they could stretch themselves a bit and figure out how to communicate the importance of the work that needs to be done in those spaces.  How can we encourage the creation of buildings that can facilitate the mess of academic work, inspire the creative connections that are possible when people come together in common locations, without atriums?

A final warning:

And if you haven’t had enough, this is a nice record of a conversation about library spaces, including atriums.


Now, let’s see what else we can do with our library spaces, shall we?