Greenwich’s Alternative Domes (3)

West Greenwich Library, Greenwich High Road

Today, courtesy of Stevie, I bring to you not one, but three alternative Greenwich domes, all in the same building.

Most people will be familiar with the jaunty little cupola on top of West Greenwich Library. A lovely little feature, it has no practical function (unless you count sheltering pigeons) save to look lovely.

I miss frivolity in architecture today. ‘Clean’ or ‘minimal’ just translates as ‘cheap’ in most cases. I’m not talking about truly innovative, interesting architecture (I’m told Peckham library is an example of that, though I confess I’ve not seen it in the flesh/steel/glass.) I’m talking about the hideous concrete boxes that would constitute a public building like a library if it was going to be built today.

I can guarantee you now that there will be no pointless-but-pretty cupola on the top of the new library in the “Heart of East Greenwich.” If it ever gets built of course. I’ve been peering from the top floors of buses at a giant lump of weedy land for – well – a couple of years now, and the only thing that’s actually happened in all that time was the signs on the fences being replaced as the government department in charge changed its name. Again.

But this wasn’t supposed to be a moan-post. It’s meant to be glorying in the splendour of one of Greenwich’s best ‘secret’ domes. Just look at this:

British Library Reading Room, eat your heart out. This was built at a time when to be surrounded by beauty whilst you were feeding your mind was considered important. Its Wedgwood-like paint job and gorgeous half-moon leaded lights, its delicate white ribs, dainty floral moulding and fancy second-dome glass lantern brings to mind great buildings of Antiquity – the Pantheon, Neo-classicism – St Pauls, and the great houses of England – Ickworth, Chatsworth, sundry other ‘worths…’

And we can just wander in, pick up a book – or even a newspaper and sit in this splendour for free. Fab.

I often wonder about Andrew Carnegie, the American tycoon/philanthropist who funded both this and East (though on the outside it’s called ‘Central’) Greenwich library just over 100 years ago. Small towns up and down the country have him to thank for lovely art-nouveau buildings still often used for their original purpose.

Born in poverty in Scotland, Carnegie knew real hardship – his family had to borrow cash in order to emigrate. He clawed his way up the American Dream, and truly believed that the secret to success was education. So he built a network of libraries across the English-speaking world, on condition that the local authorities made a financial commitment to the library’s operation and maintenance. In West Greenwich library this seems to be working well. I’m less sure about the equally lovely East Greenwich facility.

But I’m getting grumpy again, and I don’t want to. So I’ll leave you with another of Stevie’s fabulous pictures of this wonderful Greenwich Secret.

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