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Fountainbridge Library

Alice Strang

  • Suggestion
The Fountainbridge Library in Edinburgh © Richard Findlay

To walk through the entrance of Fountainbridge Library on Dundee Street in Edinburgh is to walk into the 1930s. It was built between 1937 and 1940 to a design by John Alexander William Grant (1886/7-1959) and opened during the blackout of World War Two. An imposing three-storey central tower is flanked by wings on a sloping corner site, with vast windows providing health-giving natural light. Low-relief panels on its façades by Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson (1887-1959) illustrate the building’s purpose: a man stands reading beside a librarian at a bookcase, who advises a mother and child. All wear contemporary clothing to emphasise the library’s intended community use.

The first thing to do on entering the building is to look up. The cantilevered, octagonal stairwell, topped by a cupola, is breath-taking. It creates a sense of orderly circulation and provides access to all four floors. The surviving caretaker’s entrance hall kiosk was the control centre of the complex, where evidence remains of the electric light switch main-board, pneumatic tube system to send chits between floors and internal ticket windows to the wings

Dundee Street façade, 1963 by Robin A. Hill © City of Edinburgh Council
The Fountainbridge Library
The Fountainbridge Library
The octagonal staircase at the Fountainbridge Library © Alice Strang

Originally given over entirely to library services, the building consisted of stores and staff rooms in the basement, a games, concert and lecture hall alongside a Newspaper Reading Room on the ground floor, a vast open-plan Lending Library on the first floor and dedicated Reference and Junior Libraries on the top floor. High ceilings, internal glazing, laylights and skylights create an airy and spacious environment throughout. Illuminated open access shelving, adjustable newspaper reading stands and a combined air conditioning and central heating system were amongst the features that meant Fountainbridge Library was a ‘state-of-the-art’ facility when it opened.

“....to visualise games of dominoes being played on the ground floor (cards were banned to discourage gambling) and to hear children being ‘shushed’ by librarians from their extant curved and glazed station on the top floor.”

A glorious set of interior photos was taken at the time. These images and the fact that so many original features remain means that it takes little imagination to join staff breaks in the basement, where an original telephone still hangs on a wall, to visualise games of dominoes being played on the ground floor (cards were banned to discourage gambling) and to hear children being ‘shushed’ by librarians from their extant curved and glazed station on the top floor.

The building now houses two libraries as well as an NHS clinic and a Citizens Advice Bureau. At the time of writing the ground floor is currently being used as a pop-up COVID-19 Testing Centre. As a result, Fountainbridge Library continues to serve the community, not least in times of emergency from the blackout to the current pandemic, in a building which is an exceptional example of modern Scottish civic architecture.

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