Rebuilding a Temple of Learning

The New Library, Magdalene College designed by Niall McLaughlin Architects won the 26th RIBA Stirling Award 2022 for meeting the challenge of replacing a library gifted to Magdalene by Samuel Pepys 300 years previously with a deft and inspiring building with a lifespan of 400 years and more. 

The New Library, Magdalene College in Cambridge by Níall McLaughlin Architects is exquisitely detailed and provides students at the 700-year-old University of Cambridge college with a new library incorporating an archive and an art gallery.

Set within the college grounds in Cambridge’s city-centre, the new library replaces the cramped study spaces of the adjacent 17th century Grade I listed Pepys Library and extends the quadrangular arrangement of buildings and courts that have gradually developed from the monastic college site.

Honouring the rich surrounding history, Níall McLaughlin Architects combined load-bearing brick, gabled pitched roofs, windows with tracery and brick chimneys that animate the skyline with contemporary sustainable design elements to create a building that will stand the test of time. It contrasts openness with intimacy; and deftly achieves the architects’ vision for a structure that gradually rises towards the light.

Visitors are met with an elegant brickwork façade and enticing large wooden doors, which open into a tiered, timber interior, bathed in light. A triple-height entrance hall leads into a central double-height reading room. A regular grid of brick chimneys supports the timber floors and bookshelves and carries warm air up to ventilate the building. Between each set of four chimneys, there is a large, vaulted lantern skylight. A connecting passageway above, along the building’s eastern end, provides views across the college and gardens and towards the river.

“The delineation of load-bearing brick vertical structure, supporting spanning engineered timber horizontal structure is used to reinforce the organizational scheme. This creates an underlying pattern of warp and weft that we hope can be understood intuitively by people using the building,” says the architects, ““For us, good architecture plays a variety of experiences against underlying order so as to produce harmony. The new library is based upon a logical latticework of interrelated elements.”

“Roof lights, columns, floor beams shelves, windows, desks and balustrades form a coherent warp and weft throughout the space,” they added. The grid structure delineates an attractive array of spaces: wide zones for reading rooms and group study, and narrow zones for staircases and bookcases. The layout also creates a range of study spaces for independent study – with desks set into bay windows, hidden in private niches and within shared zones – enabling students to be tucked away or among peers depending on their inclination.

This is a modern building that employs simple but highly effective passive ventilation and natural lighting strategies to minimise energy in use, and materials such as engineered timber structure to reduce carbon embodied in its construction.

Speaking on behalf of the 2022 RIBA Stirling Prize jury, RIBA President Simon Allford, said: “A unique setting with a clear purpose – The New Library at Magdalene College is sophisticated, generous, architecture that has been built to last.”

Allford said: “Creating a new building that will last at least 400 years is a significant challenge, but one that Niall McLaughlin Architects has risen to with the utmost skill, care and responsibility.

“The result – a solid and confident, yet deferential new kid on the college block. The light-filled, warm-wood interior lifts spirit and fosters connections. 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. 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.

“Well-designed environments hugely improve student success and wellbeing. As universities across the world work hard to position themselves in an ever-growing higher education marketplace, investment in great buildings is essential. This is an exemplary model to aspire to.”

The New Library is the first substantial addition to Magdalene College’s main campus in 50 years and was thus shortlisted alongside five other schemes for 2022’s Stirling Prize.

Explaining their process, the architects said, “We wanted to make the building a journey that gradually rose towards the light. On the way up there would be rooms, galleries, and places to perch with a book. At the top, there would be views out over the lawn towards the water. We wanted to create a variety of ways for someone to situate themselves depending on inclination. You might sit in a grand hall, a small room, or tuck yourself into a tiny private niche.

“The materiality and form of the new library are derived both from its context and from the College’s brief to make a highly durable and sustainable building. The older college buildings are of load-bearing brick, with timber floors and gabled pitched roof structures. Brick chimneys animate the skyline and stone tracery picks out the fenestration. We tried to make the new building from this set of architectural elements. We used timber instead of stone for our window tracery, which will weather over time to become a silvery grey like the stone.”

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. 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 geometry of the roof lights, which are lined internally with grooved timber panels, helps to flood the reading spaces with soft light while minimising direct sunlight and glare. The design of the library was strongly influenced by the requirements to passively light (characterised by the roof lanterns), and naturally ventilate the spaces (characterised by the stack effect ventilation chimneys and openings in the roof). Overall, the project presents exceptional engagement with environmental design principles, validated the RIBA jury. The predicted energy performance as a result exceeds the RIBA 2030 benchmark to be one of the best performing buildings of this year’s submissions. The project is also one of the top submissions in terms of whole-life carbon considerations, and has addressed the RIBA 2025 benchmark. The structure is dominated by loadbearing brickwork, with horizontal support predominantly in engineered timber and to lesser extent as precast lintels and support beams. These material choices have successfully reconciled the existing constraints of the historic College context to deliver a building that will present a long and sustainable service life.


RIBA region:    East

Architect practice:    Niall McLaughlin Architects

Date of completion:    01 2021

Date of occupation:    01 2021

Client company name:    Magdalene College

Project city/town:    Cambridge

Contract value:    Confidential

Gross internal area:    1,525.00 m²

Net internal area:    1,223.00 m²

Cost per m²:    Confidential

Contractor company name:    Cocksedge


Structural Engineers : Smith & Wallwork

Project Management : Savills

Quantity Surveyor / Cost Consultant: Gleeds

Acoustic Engineers : Max Fordham

Environmental / M&E Engineers: Max Fordham

Building Control: MLM