Katharine Stephen Rare Books Library


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Newnham College, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge, CB3 9DF


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Statutory Address:
Newnham College, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge, CB3 9DF

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Cambridge (District Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Library built in 1981-1982 to the designs of Joanna van Heyningen and Birkin Haward.

Reasons for Designation

The Katharine Stephen Rare Books Library, built in 1981-1982 to the designs of Joanna van Heyningen and Birkin Haward, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* it is an early and well-preserved example of Post-Modernism, and an early work by this important practice; * it is a perfectly proportioned building with a geometric clarity and a crispness of detailing that is visually arresting; * it has a jewel box of a design that references its surroundings, north Italian Renaissance architecture and European Post-Modernism; * it has been critically acclaimed, notably by James Stirling who wrote that ‘it has achieved an incredible presence, which to me is the definition of monumental’.

Group value:

* the sensitive and striking nature of its design forms a significant element in the Grade II* listed Newnham College with which it has strong group value.


Post-Modernism, a movement and a style prevalent in architecture between about 1975 and 1990, is defined in terms of its relationship with modern architecture. Post-Modernist architecture is characterised by its plurality, engagement with urban context and setting, reference to older architectural traditions and use of metaphor and symbolism. As a formal language it has affinities with mannerism (unexpected exaggeration, distortions of classical scale and proportion) and the spatial sophistication of Baroque architecture. Post-Modernism accepts the technology of industrialised society but expresses it in more diverse ways than the machine imagery of the contemporary High-Tech style. The origins of the style are found in the United States, notably in the work of Robert Venturi and Charles Moore which combined aspects of their country’s traditions (ranging from the C19 Shingle Style to Las Vegas) with the knowing irony of pop art. A parallel European stream combined an abstracted classicism or a revival of 1930s rationalism with renewed interest in the continental city and its building types. In England, the American and European idioms converged in the late 1970s, to produce works by architects of international significance, including James Stirling, and distinctive voices unique to Britain such as John Outram. The 1980s revival of the British economy was manifested in major urban projects by Terry Farrell and others in London, while practices such as CZWG devised striking imagery for commercial and residential developments in Docklands and elsewhere.

The Katharine Stephen Rare Books Library at Newnham College was built in 1981-1982 to the designs of Joanna van Heyningen (1945- ), the commission allowing her to form a partnership with her husband Birkin Haward. Van Heyningen read architecture at Cambridge from 1969 to 1974 before working for Neylan and Ungless and then Foster Associates where she met her husband. She formed her own practice in 1977 and was awarded an OBE in 2016 for her services to architecture. Birkin Haward (1939- ) is the eldest son of the architect Birkin Haward who worked for Erich Mendelsohn and specialised in designing schools, mostly in the Ipswich area. Haward Jnr studied at the Architectural Association from 1958 to 1963, and his early buildings with van Heyningen demonstrate a wide variety of influences. Whilst many of their buildings have been for schools and colleges, including Wilson Court, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge (1994) and the Jacqueline du Pré Music Centre at St Hilda’s, Oxford (1995), they also designed West Ham station for the Jubilee Line (1999) which is typical of their more modern later buildings. The practice continues but van Heyningen and Haward have both retired.

The rare books library was named after Katharine Stephen (1856-1924) who was for many years responsible for the library at Newnham College before becoming the Principal between 1911 and 1920. She was a cousin of Virginia Woolf. The library was commissioned when it became apparent that the rare books were not being stored in ideal conditions, and it was agreed that the new library should be a detached building separated from the other college libraries to provide security against fire and theft. It is a repository rather than a user library, and provides about 500 metres of shelf space for the College’s extensive collection of around 6,000 rare books, manuscripts and artefacts. Its general form was inspired by the college’s first library, designed by Basil Champneys in 1896-1898 (Grade II*), which has a barrel-vaulted roof, window seats and a gallery with a metal balustrade. Van Heyningen’s building repeats the vaulting and proportions of the earlier building. A small lobby isolates it from the adjoining library extension by John Miller and Partners (2001-2003) which replaced Lyster and Grillet’s smaller annexe of 1961-1962. The Rare Books Library won a Civic Trust Award in 1984.

Since its completion, the building has only been slightly modified to provide the appropriate conditions for the preservation of the books. The shelves have been moved away from the walls to allow better air circulation, and a dehumidifier has been fitted. In 1994 the skylight was replaced as the original uPVC was showing signs of deterioration; and in 2003 security bars were added to the windows and the carpet was replaced with linoleum in a colour close to the original flooring.


Library built in 1981-1982 to the designs of Joanna van Heyningen and Birkin Haward.

MATERIALS: steel frame clad in red and blue brick laid in stretcher bond. Roof covering of Code 4 lead laid on a timber structure.

PLAN: the building has a rectangular plan and is located on the south side of Sidgwick Avenue, at the north-east corner of the main college buildings.

It is linked to the early C21 library extension by a small lobby which is not included in the listing.

EXTERIOR: the small, two-storey building has a barrel-vaulted roof with semicircular lead hoppers which reflect its barrel form and a ridge skylight running its full length. The polychromatic brickwork is vertically striped with alternating red and blue brick up to the gable heads which are solely of blue brick. The gable ends are pierced by two nine-pane, square ‘doll’s house’ windows of steel which is painted blue, one above the other. The longer side elevations are blind. Access is from the west side of the south elevation via a small glazed lobby (rebuilt in 2003) adjoining the library extension. The door has one large glazed panel and a security shutter has been fixed onto the outer face.

INTERIOR: this consists of a single double-height room with a gallery around all four sides. The walls are of white plasterboard lined with attached steel bookshelves. The gallery has a grille floor and is reached by a centrally placed, straight flight stair of steel with open risers, perforated treads and tubular banisters. The windows at either end have security bars directly over the original glazing bars and incorporate small seats inspired by those in the Old Library. The window seat on the ground-floor at the east end has been raised to accommodate a dehumidifier.



This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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