THE CONSTRUCTION of the British Library has become the stuff of legend. The Empire State Building was raised within a year, Crystal Palace in weeks. After all, there is plenty of evidence to show that big, complicated buildings can be completed at a hell of a lick.
The construction of the Palace of Westminster (1837-60) was even more protracted; so much so that a Royal Commission was appointed to find ways of speeding up the work.
St Paul's Cathedral took 35 years to build and only Wren's tactical brilliance ensured it was completed in his lifetime.
Where there is a political and financial will driving major projects forward, as for example in the grands projets of recent French presidents, architects, engineers and contractors can move with acrobatic verve.
These feats of intensely concentrated modern construction make the saga of buildings such as the British Library all the more incomprehensible.
Albert Speer completed Hitler's vainglorious Reich Chancellory down to the last veneered and Versailles-like detail in just 10 months, using labour drawn from all over Germany.
More complex buildings than these have been built efficiently and comparatively quickly; one need mention only the adventurous Lloyd's Building in the City of London (1981-86) designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership, and the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank (1981-86) by Foster Associates, to see how the most sophisticated modern designs can be built within a few highly engineered and action-packed years.
The wilful, vegetable-like Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family, Barcelona (better known as the Sagrada Familia, designed by Antoni Gaudi) is still nowhere near completion more than a century after work began. Has the architect really asked for ceilings to be removed because they do not not meet his meticulous standards? Pity Brian Lang, the Library's long-suffering director who spends an inordinate amount of time writing to the press in defence of what, at pounds 445m, is Britain's most expensive public building this century.
These buildings, however, have been crafted by hand. Colin St John Wilson, the library's architect, a perfectionist with a passion for Wittgenstein (the philosopher who really did take down a newly- completed ceiling in the house he designed for his sister in Vienna because he thought it was a few centimetres out), has been toiling on the design for three decades.
One could argue, however, that the British Library has not been slow if one compares it to some of the great European buildings of history.