View of a second-storey reading room, showing a central table alongside a bookshelf and large window looking out over the trees.

Interior of Magdalene College, showing a study space below a vaulted ceiling

On October 13, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) announced The New Library of Cambridge University’s Magdalene College as the 2022 Stirling Prize winner. Considered the most prestigious architecture award in the United Kingdom, the annual prize represents a major laurel for designers Níall McLaughlin Architects. For a building designed to last four centuries, however, it may amount to a historical footnote.

Situated alongside Cambridge’s 17th-century Pepys Library, the 1,525-square-metre building replaces a cluster of cramped study spaces with an airy, breathable — and book-filled — facility that’s open to students 24 hours per day. Framed by a brick facade, the library’s tall chimneys, gabled pitched roofs and wood-framed windows reflect the articulation and materiality of the Tudor-era surroundings.

Exterior view of Magdalene College, with the building visible behind the branches of a tree

Behind the stately wooden front doors, the light-filled interior unfolds in tall, airy spaces and soaring wooden ceilings. Past a triple-height entrance hall, the library’s reading room is a tranquil centrepiece.

A view of the reading room, showing a long central table framed by bricks, bookshelves and tall vaulted ceilings

Alongside the bookshelves and study spaces, the Magdalene College library also features an archive and an art gallery, with the interior spaces all organized around a regular, repeating grid of brick chimneys that support the timber floors and provide natural ventilation through the building. A key structural and visual element, the chimneys also support the vaulted lantern skylights that flood the space with natural light.

View of a second-storey reading room, showing a central table alongside a bookshelf and large window looking out over the trees.

The emphasis on natural lighting and passive ventilation also ensures both reduced energy demands and a lower embodied carbon footprint — the latter also achieved thanks to an engineered timber structure.

A view of a small second storey reading nook suspended above the triple-height entry hall

The new Magdalene College Library is an aesthetically timeless building of understated modernist sensibilities and contextual deference, but also one that reflects how we think about — or ought to think — about architecture in 2022.

Looking up to one of the vaulted ceilings, framed in a blonde wood finish

“The light-filled, warm-wood interior lifts spirit and fosters connections,” says RIBA President Simon Allford, speaking on behalf of the Stirling Prize jury. “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.”

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