Behind the scenes at the RIBA British Architectural Library collection

By Ed Sexton | 24 June 2009
a black and white photo of a building frontage

Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, London: the main elevation, 1934. Dell and Wainwright. Picture courtesy of RIBA Library Photographs Collection.

The RIBA British Architectural Library is a treasure trove of more than 1.5 million images, drawings and engravings, thousands of which are now only a click away on the Ribapix website.

Assistant curator Laura Whitton gave Culture24 a behind the scenes look at the archive to see some of the rarest pieces in the collection and find out more about what it takes to look after the best architectural library in Europe.

"The earliest photos in the collection are of Central Park that were gifted to the collection in the 1850s," said Laura, "and I think it would be fascinating to see if any of the structures and landscaping in the pictures still exists today. "

"One of the star collections in the RIBA archive is by Edwin Smith whose photos cover a huge range of areas from buildings to gardens and we recently had an exhibition at the Chris Beetles gallery to introduce a new audience to the photos.

Apart from its vast historical archive, the RIBA archive is ever expanding with many more digital colour photographs of contemporary buildings to add to the collection.

a colour photo of a building interior showing stairs and glass windows

(above) Royal Institute of British Architects, the main staircase and atrium, 2001. Rachel Smith Picture courtesy of RIBA Library Photographs Collection.

Five years ago the collection was also given a boost when the Architectural Press donated its archive, and the curatorial team and volunteers now have the mammoth task of sorting through it.

"There were around 800,000 pieces that came to us in filing cabinets and folders and they were not really archivally sound - there were a lot of staples and paper clips," explained Laura. "The task of sorting them all out is an ongoing one – the collection has to be reboxed in acid free conditions and we will have to do an item by item listing of the pieces."

"We have 15 volunteers helping us and I think we are only about 10 per cent of the way through. The collection is fantastic and covers from the 1920s to the 1980s - they really act as a document of social history as buildings are so important to our day-to-day life."

a black and white photo of a building set within parkland

(above) Balcony Bridge, Central Park, New York , 1860s. RIBA Library Photographs Collection.

Other highlights of the archive are 2,000 glass plate negatives taken by Dell and Wainwright who were the official photographers to the Architectural Review from 1930-1946.

"The glass negatives are incredibly heavy and the huge drawers we store them in are the same as the ones used in Formula One garages because they can take so much weight. When they were installed – someone stood in one of the drawers to show just how sturdy they really were."

a photo of curved modernist structures and tiled floor

Whipsnade Zoo estate, Whipsnade: the sun-catch, 1936. Dell & Wainwright. Picture courtesy of RIBA Library Photographs Collection.

The RIBA archives and the Ribapix website are a valuable resource for students, businesses, architects and architectural enthusiasts as well as members of the public who have connections with the images in the collection.

"We have lovely stories of people, who have spotted themselves in photos and requested them. Six months ago a guy came across a picture taken in the Gorbals in Glasgow of a boy playing in the street in front of a building that was being photographed," said Laura.

"He was the boy in the picture and could remember the photographer Henk Snoek being there. It is great when we come across stories like that – we also have a lot of people who have found their houses on the database and want the photos.

"The RIBA collection has a series of pictures taken at the Midland Hotel – when the hotel was regenerated the pictures went on display at the hotel to evoke a sense of history. A man recognised two women in the background of one of the photos as his mum and auntie."

a photo of a high-rise tower block with a boy in trousers in the foreground

Queen Elizabeth Square, Hutchesontown C, Gorbals, Glasgow, 1965. Henk Snoek. Picture courtesy of RIBA Library Photographs Collection.

The collection is kept under strict temperature conditions making the environment pretty chilly, which is welcome in the summer but Laura says it’s not unusual to dig out her hat and scarf to come down in the winter.

In some cases the chilly conditions that the bulk of the collection are stored in are just not cold enough. Negatives that suffer from 'Vinegar Syndrome,' a process that erodes them, have to be frozen to stop them affecting other pieces of the collection.

"This is a process which we cannot stop but we can slow it down by freezing the negatives in one of four freezers," explained Laura. "These parts of the collections are still accessible but we have to allow the items three hours to acclimatise to the warmer conditions in the archive."

For more information on the RIBA Library Photographs Collection go to the Ribapix website.

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