The London Book Club
The London Book Club introduces a series of interventions across an array of alleyways nestled throughout the city. These sites are hidden in plain view, bookended by buildings either side and revealing themselves only at the narrow points at which they meet the street. Despite this, they offer an expanse of hidden linear wall space, occasional secluded courtyards and a rich history connecting them directly to the narratives found in many books both fiction and non.
There are many such sites to be found across London – indeed, the London Book Club aims to eventually make use of sites from the centre of the city to the outskirts – however, just one cluster has been elaborated on here: the alleyways found branching off Fleet Street.
Famous for its now-departed connection to the press, Fleet Street also holds host to a deep, yet lesser known literary history found in these warrens. Crane Court, for example, was for seventy years the home of the Royal Society and a frequent haunt of Sir Isaac Newton. However, in the face of prime office real estate and the bustling connection of Fleet Street such histories are easily missed.
Indeed, given its central location it is perhaps surprising that any moments of tranquility could occur in this area at all. During the week these alleyways act as eddy currents to the flow of city workers offering momentary respite from the busy crowds. Furthermore, during the weekend an entirely different situation arises – the busy thoroughfare becomes muted as offices close and foot traffic falls to a minimum. The alleyways become deserted and discretely disappear into the facades of Fleet Street.
This raises an opportunity: unknown to tourists and ignored by city workers, these slivers of available space offer the possibility for much needed dwelling spaces missing from such a thoroughfare. People can be found relaxing along Fleet Street, however, this is exclusively found in the form of readers and drinkers within the pubs and coffee shops jostling for attention along its length. This proposal addresses this problem and aims to use these in-between spaces to provide dwelling space where the purchasing of goods is not needed for entry and the transient population along Fleet Street is balanced by a more considered, reflective mood.
The London Book Club weaves the narrative of reading with the experience of the city. It celebrates the intimate and sensory experience of turning pages while bringing the reader out into the world to experience space alongside the written word. The proposal stems from a belief in the importance of books in both everyday life and, more acutely, during times of turmoil.
During WWII, London air raid shelters such as the then unused Bethnal Green Station had a library of 6000 books in order to ensure easy access to reading material. However, despite expectations, the most popular books with the nightly clientele of 4000 people were not fiction or DIY manuals but philosophy: Plato and Schopenhauer in particular. Times of crisis triggered a need for reflection.
In today’s economic climate, the ability to borrow – rather than buy – books is critical. However, across the capital libraries are being closed and their surplus stock being sold through pre-arranged distribution channels. The London Book Club offers an alternative course of action: to redistribute this surplus across the city in a series of micro-libraries located in small pockets of left-over space.
On becoming a member of the London Book Club, you receive a key and a short guide on the current distribution of books across the city. As the scheme expands, additional locations are added to the directory with the eventual aim of a fully distributed library catalogue arranged – not by the Dewey Decimal system – but by the city location. Engrossed in a book, you can look up and realise that you are sat in the very place you are reading about.
The Fleet Street site shown here is to be the first of many and has been chosen for its central location – offering both a rich literary history and an interesting traffic dynamic. During the week there is an extreme contrast between the bustling main road and the quiet branching alleyways. Momentary release is offered just a few steps off the thoroughfare. However, during the weekends, with offices closed and the city resting, the area is quiet and under used. Here the micro-libraries offer balance from the opposite direction – encouraging families and individuals to venture into the city and explore both the streets and bookshelves.
The walls of micro-libraries are composed of wooden blocks – the majority able to hold books while others are used as spacers to ensure structural support. This aesthetic stems from a crucial point in literary history – the British Obscenity Trial centred on the full publication of Lady Chatterly’s Lover in 1960. Before this trial – the ruling of which allowed publishers much more freedom in what they could publish – libraries were forced to replace risqué books on shelves with wooden place holders which could be exchanged at the counter for the offending item.
Following the trial, these books could be put in their rightful place on the shelves and the wooden blocks disposed of en masse – unfortunately sharing a similar fate to countless books today.