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British Library Completes Circle From Eyesore to Treasure

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The largest public library ever built in the UK, initially condemned by public opinion only to become a beloved, Brutalist icon, was given historic status by the British government last week, according to The Guardian. Grade I Listed status was bestowed upon the red-brick British Library, a designation analogous to being added to the National Register of Historic Places, and a rare honor for a modern building in a country with so many centuries-old structures. It also represents a sizable shift in public opinion. Prince Charles once noted that the building more resembled an academy for secret policemen than a place of learning, and its creation and construction was delayed numerous times by political interference and budget cuts. A parliamentary committee bluntly labeled it "one of the ugliest buildings in the world."

Architect Colin St John Wilson called his struggle to finish the project, the largest public space built in the United Kingdom in the 20th century, his "Thirty Years War." Construction of the 506 million pound (~$788 million) building, which began in 1982 after years of arguing over site selection, finally finished in 1997. Wilson's design—which referenced the surrounding Victorian facades, the architecture of Cambridge University and Aalto's Säynätsalo Town Hall—included an interior with sun-lit reading rooms that's since become a public favorite.

One of the most time-consuming tasks involved with opening the institution's new home turned out to be moving the library's 14 million books, which took four years. The complete collection of more than 150 million objects, which began to be assembled starting in 1753, includes one-of-a-kind pieces in the "treasures gallery" of rare books and manuscripts such as Shakespeare's First Folio, Gutenberg's 1455 Bible and Handel's Messiah written by the composer.

The Life and Death of Britain's Most Beloved Brutalist Building, Robin Hood Gardens [Curbed]
Play Hard: New Brutalist Playground in London Celebrates the Legacy of Concrete Parks [Curbed]