The Library of Birmingham's audacity

Following the launch of The Library of Birmingham on the 2nd April, The Library of Birmingham, the media has been awash with news and opinions on the design. The Guardian reported on the scheme with a number of articles, referring to the "City council['s intention] to build UK's largest ever lending library" and the views of Top writers celebrate Library of Birmingham's audacity in it's 'gateway to the future'.

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The new library will be Britain's biggest ever public library, accomodating three million visitors a year and will be built with £159m of public funds with only the British Library being larger, although the British Library does not lend and operates by appointment only.

The scale is immense and the facts should challenge the myths circulating about the new library, since it was first mused, that it would be smaller. Mecanoo's design is 20 per cent larger and will be futureproofed with room for expansion of the city archives for 15 years at least.

This sheer scale, which evidently came as a shock to some people seeing images for the first time, is partly explained by the decision to go down only one floor.

The official count is ten [floors], not including the small dome or pill-box on the top which is intended to house the Shakespeare Memorial Room, the preserved fragment of JH Chamberlain’s Victorian library. The lowest two levels are themselves divided in two. The ground floor, which will connect directly with the Rep’s entrance foyer, will have a mezzanine floor continuous with the Rep’s first-floor foyer which sweeps round in an arc.The basement or lower ground floor will have an intermediate level at the back of the building to house the children’s library (openings above allow natural light into it), while the music library at the lowest level extends out under the square.

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This extension into the square is an exciting idea and has already garnered much interest. This amphitheatre will allow users of the square to look down into an open area only accessible from the music library and could be used as a performance space. Like the square the building interacts with the outdoors with a garden terrace facing the square on the third floor while a 'hidden garden' at the back will look out over Cambridge Street.

For all its bulk, the shape of the building, rather like a stack of books, reflects the functions of each floor, and in contrast to the blank concrete walls of the existing library it will have a high degree of transparency.

Like the present library the new one will include escalators, though they will bypass certain floors housing archives to which there is no public access. While in the present library the various floors repeat the same layout, here there will be much more of a sense of an evolving journey as you move through the building.

The new Birmingham library will provide opportunities to make the library’s collections far more visible.That includes a considerable increase in gallery space to mount exhibitions from the library’s internationally important collection of photographs.

As I noted in my previous posts in the countdown to the launch, Mecanoo were keen to reflect on the history of Birmingham and one of the most visible and also controversial aspects of the design will reflect on the history of metal-bashing with a decorative metal mesh encasing the building. The pattern of this mesh, of interlocking circles, will protect the interior from the sun but has already attracted an ironic comment from who suggest Seventies wallpaper makes a comeback in Birmingham. Bdonline suggest that wallpaper from titled Jebisu is an exact match for the design.

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Birmingham's plans come at the same time as several new "super libraries" have opened in Cardiff and Swindon and renovations are planned for Manchester and Liverpool central libraries together with Newcastle upon Tyne's new library opening in June. Birmingham's plans alongside these other cities developments are welcomed by Alexander McCall-Smith, author of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series in the Guardian who says that "Whatever changes may occur in the way in which read about the world, libraries remain absolutely central to the life of a nation. Libraries house our knowledge and our culture; they are beacons of light in a difficult world",

Novelist Irvine Welsh supports these views describing the Birmingham plan as an "audacious and compelling initiative which promises to redefine and modernise the entire notion of public library services, and in the process create the greatest public information resource in Europe ... Writers will love it, and so will readers.", The plans will help to redefine the library's role in society and importantly for Birmingham and the UK help to challenge social inequality. While 2m books and 6m archives would be retained from the current library the new library would offer digital loans for e-book readers and would place a strong focus on I.T.

Birmingham plans to use its new library to explicitly promote the government's social inclusion agenda in what is a controversial move for campaigners who want librarians to focus simply on providing the best reading materials."Most people expect to be able to go and read in a library, but the library service has become a victim of political correctness," said Tim Coates, the former chief executive of Waterstones who now campaigns for better public libraries.
"Government agendas on social inclusion are on their own important, but libraries should realise that by being a good library in the sense of providing the widest range of books, magazines and newspapers, they fulfil that role."

Among other writers views on the new library and it's example to library development were Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials trilogy, Ruth Rendell, and Sir Alan Ayckbourn.

Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy: "At a time when more and more libraries are under threat, it is very heartening to hear of one that is planning to expand ... And of course I am glad to hear that it will feature up-to-date information technology, but I trust that books and all that they represent will always be at the heart of the Library of Birmingham."

Ruth Rendell, novelist: "I always feel a thrill and a surge of hope when I hear of a new library being built, something which doesn't happen very often.
Libraries have always been places of refuge and peace to me, havens where I feel at home. The new Library of Birmingham sounds as if it will be lovely and should attract even more users than the present one with its impressive visitor total of 5,000 a day."

Sir Alan Ayckbourn, playwright: "I wholeheartedly support the proposed exciting new plans to develop the new Birmingham library. A public library such as Birmingham's is no less than the civilised heart of the community it serves, providing for everyone who visits it a record of the past, a focus for the present and a gateway to the future."


Anonymous said…
i have no idea to what extent the faceade "reflect[s] on the history of metal-bashing" when, in actual fact, Mecannoo used exactly the same facade design for the ICC competition in The Hague lst year:

-colin o

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