Ugly UCD building: The James Joyce Library

Image Credit: Doireann de Courcy Mad Donnell

Laura Kenny discusses the UCD James Joyce Library.

The James Joyce library could easily be cast aside as one of UCD’s ugliest buildings. This would come as no surprise, given the associations students might have of the monolithic concrete fortress. It is where many have chained themselves to a desk for days on end to graft their way through exams and assignments. The library is also just like all the other ‘ugly’ concrete blocks that form the distinctive civic crust of UCD’s Belfield campus. On closer examination, a different story can be told.

Designed in the early seventies by Sir Basil Spence Glover & Ferguson, the James Joyce library was conceived as the geographic centre of the Belfield campus and is strategically placed beside the main lake, which serves the university as a vibrant social epicentre. A raised concrete-mass is held up by structural pilotis that create a covered portico and a welcoming access point over the building’s main entrance. Simultaneously, it forms part of the circulation route that is created by the sheltered arterial walkway from the restaurant building to the blue chapel. The library’s strategic placement and engineered effort to collage together different areas of campus life is an act of generous and thoughtful architectural intent.

Intelligent circulation design continues upon entry at the ground floor. A seemingly free-standing staircase and ramp welcome and direct occupants between academic study on the floors above and social and convivial spaces below. The escalator system, located at the centre of the first floor, works as a vertical spine to enable movement between the different levels. Generous horizontal planes pivot around this spinal passage on each level to accommodate for swathes of desks that attentively prioritise scholastic activity. Bookshelves, bathroom facilities, meeting rooms, group workspaces and printer facilities are carefully embedded in clusters around these areas to complement and aid the academic needs of the university’s student population.

The library’s thick, grey, and heavy material palette has the potential to be regarded as one of its ugliest and most prison-like features. Interestingly, this intervention further exemplifies the architect’s effort to sensitively address the needs of student scholars. The external downward-facing louvres filter natural daylight entering the library, which keep the interior temperate and create a quality of light appropriate for cerebral activity. The durable and robust properties of the concrete waffle-slab ceilings provide the strength required to carry the weight of students and books onto the building’s structural web.  

One of the library’s most beautiful qualities is its nuanced ability to harmonise with the characterful neighbourhood of adjacent geometric and planar blocks. This closely entangled group of buildings project a robust and rugged beauty that is an evocative modern nod to the jagged Irish landscape and the low-rise quality of Dublin city.

The age-old sentiment that beauty is found within could not be more applicable to the designed resolve of this concrete bastion. The James Joyce library is architecture’s rendition of a gentle giant in need of defence and understanding. The James Joyce library is an emblem of a concealed scholastic world that stimulates a focused and calm sense of productivity. Ingeniously, the lake works in parallel to occasionally draw students out onto the steps, where the social ingredient of student days is what forms the warm and magic memories of university life.