Swansea Metropolitan University buys library building

  • 10 June 2011
  • From the section Wales
Swansea Central Library building
Image caption The library will house the university's International Institute of Sustainable Design

When it was opened almost 125 years ago, Swansea Central Library was an emblem of the city's industrial might.

Now, four years after closing to the public, it is again set to embody Swansea's hopes for a manufacturing future to match its past.

In a deal thought to be worth about £8m, the site once bank rolled by copper kings has been purchased by Swansea Metropolitan University and will house its International Institute of Sustainable Design.

Opened in 1887 by once and future Prime Minister William Gladstone the library on Alexandra Road was one of the few city centre buildings to survive the Swansea Blitz of World War II.

In its time, it went on to influence people as varied as author Kingsley Amis to former Conservative leader Michael Howard, and Dylan Thomas to Lyn Evans, the man in charge of the Large Hadron Collider project, the huge experiment studying the fundamental nature of matter.

Its Grade-II listed domed circular reading room is also fondly remembered by social historian, Prof Peter Stead.

"I'd say that the library's round reading room is my favourite room in the whole of Swansea," he said.

"I have carried out so much of my research in there, and often when I thought I was stuck in an impasse, the bust of Gladstone staring down on me, along with the light and lofty dome - almost like a mini British library - inspired me to carry on."

'Intelligent city'

"In 1887 the library must have been an emphatic statement of intent by one of the most powerful cities in the world."

"In the late 19th Century Swansea was known as the intelligent city, because of the number of engineers, metallurgists and geologists who gravitated here.

Image caption Swansea Central Library as it was in 1901

"By clearing the slums in the area of what's now Alexandra Road, and building not only the library, but also the Glynn Vivian art gallery, Swansea Workingmen's Institute and Board of Guardians building, the city was sending out a sign of its innovative, learned and liberal tendencies."

But as Swansea suffers in the economic downturn, amid a reliance on public sector employment, the library once again reflects a city looking towards manufacturing for prosperity.

The revamped building, which already hosts the world leading School of Architectural Glass, will also be the new home of Swansea Met's School of Industrial Design.

The university's research into low-carbon automotive design has already been incorporated into the latest models from Jaguar, Land Rover, Lotus and Honda, and its work in architectural glass has won awards both for its artistry and energy efficiency.

Doctor Who

The potential benefits to the city as a whole are underlined by the match funding Swansea Met have received from the European Fund for Regional Development.

"From the day it first opened in 1887 the building has served as a beacon of educational enlightenment for the people of Swansea," said Prof David Warner, Swansea Met vice-chancellor.

"This exciting development will ensure that the university maintains this great tradition of providing first class education in the heart of the city."

"It is vital for the future of the automotive sector in Wales that we build the necessary capacity for the design and manufacture of innovative sustainable vehicles.

In many ways the acquisition has seen the library's history come full circle.

Swansea College of Art, which occupied the building's upper floors since the library's opening, was one of the three colleges who merged in 1976, to form Swansea Met's forerunner, the West Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education.

And perhaps its high-tech future ought not be surprising, either.

After all, it was the 55th Century setting for Doctor Who's 2008 adventure, Silence in The Library.

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