Birmingham’s new library is built for people, its tantalising pockets of learning and experience glimpsed like insights on the journey to knowledge
‘I come from the south – we’ve actually got hills there.’ Francine Houben, co-founder of Dutch firm Mecanoo promptly corrects me when I suggest her fascination with designing buildings stacked-up like mountains might be due to the fact that Holland is below sea level – and that she feels compelled to raise people’s sightlines to above the cusp of a dyke. Truth is, from her hometown of Sittard in Holland’s southern-most province, she’s spitting distance from the Vaalsberg, which gives views from its 330m summit back over Limburg and even into Belgium and Germany. Admittedly, it’s no Mont Blanc; but as I have just discovered, one should expect a Dutch person to exhibit a highly sensitive appreciation of level changes.
By the time the interview’s over I have displayed my ignorance of the geography not only of Holland, but of Birmingham too, where Mecanoo’s latest design, the city’s new £189m library now forms a strangely dizzying visual spectacle on Centenary Square. The practice’s appointment in 2008 after an invited interview process, came about after a brief three-day site visit by Houben, to help her get a handle on the UK’s second biggest city. ‘The problem was not the library – I know all about them,’ recalls Houben confidently. ‘What I needed to get to know was Birmingham.’ And she’s not fibbing – the Mecanoo-designed library at TU Delft, a concrete cone piercing a huge sloping grass roof running up from grade, changed the nature of the campus and made the practice internationally famous. In summer students sunbathe on it, in winter they ski down it, and any time of day spark up at its summit. With a high-tech library below its ramped roof, the fake hill became by default the university’s real heart. You feel a similar social intent here.
Having overcome her initial disorientation, Houben realised she could only get under the skin of Birmingham through its topography. ‘The city is defined by hills, further refined by the styles of architecture on them; classical stone, red brick, industrial iron’ she says. The comment’s an interesting one- the impression I’ve always taken away of this riverless conurbation is one of unrelenting flatness, yet Houben mythologises it as more ‘Palatine’ than ‘pancake’, with Centenary Square ‘the highest hill of them all’. And it’s here, looking over a city that Houben was shocked to find took up only two pages of a UK tourist guide, that between two incongruous palazzos – the ‘optimistic concrete’ of 1971 Rep Theatre and the 1938 neo-classical offices of Baskerville House, Mecanoo has inserted its ‘iconic’ third.
The 10-storey Library of Birmingham is a huge concrete and glass ziggurat, within which the architect has inserted a state-of-the-art facility. Its levels, you’ll discover, will be devoted to reception, to galleries, to storing its massive archive and to the reading spaces that serve them, and on the top a saved reading room from the original 1880s library; all linked by an atrium of offset circular voids. But for now all that is out of sight. Only its giant staggered form hits you, the functions unified behind a slightly deranged spirographic facade of interlocking aluminium circles hovering off its face. Neither Houben or the late John Madin would appreciate it, but from the corner of your eye, its homogeneity and massing references the brutalist old library at the east end of the square – only here the ziggurat’s flipped back on its feet.
As at Delft, the nettle has been grasped that a library can be a social space as well as one for private research. Houben notes that ‘people like to move at ground level, so we created a lot of them’ – something skillfully done by melding the 9m high ground floor with its mezzanine and the lower ground in section so two levels fluidly become four. Visitors can wander east to enter Mecanoo’s refurbished Rep lobby or drift north down a slope into the open plan public lending library at the back of the building. Here, triple height north glazing reveals the trees of a park space beyond, while slim 12m high columns rise to a meet a black metal ceiling, creating a generous and lofty space. Turn again and escalators take you down to the children’s library where the soffit drops significantly to make the scale instantly more child-friendly.
A bright yellow painted floor draws you past the bookshelves to the brightness of the music section, which wraps around an 18m diameter curved glass amphitheatre set into Centenary Square. Its glazed walls can slide away, opening the lower ground floor to the public realm, which millions walk across in any year. Now up to 500 of them at any one time will be able to look down and listen to open-air lunchtime piano recitals or plays. ‘We wanted formal and informal spaces for interaction,’ says Houben. ‘This space was not in the original brief, but creating the amphitheatre as part of the library also makes it part of the square; we want the city folk to feel they’ve visited it even if they haven’t.’ Certainly from inside the circle, while the library’s main facade looms up all the more in front of you, there remains an uncanny sense of separation.
The circular form of the amphitheatre and the golden cylinder crowning the library are the only two external clues you get of the geometry that governs the internal circulatory arrangement. Once in the foyer, the circle is immediately apparent, a pair of double height escalators disappearing into a huge hole in its ceiling. As you ascend you’ll realise the circular openings will keep continuing up; like transient phases of the moon, only partially evident as they rise, waxing and waning through the volume, while escalators criss-cross the space with, it seems, neither rhyme nor reason. You’ll glimpse stolen views of a glazed rooflight at the top of the space – part of a spatial metaphor. ‘The intellectual conceit we gave the design was that learning be an exploration, a journey; that chance and serendipity is part of the experience,’ says Brian Gambles, project director of the library. It turns out you’ll never quite see the light until you reach the top; but then again, that’s the point.
And books are where that journey begins, literally. The book wall that dominates the mid-levels of the library
not only defines the atrium, but acts as a visual foil for spaces beyond. Popping through it at lower level reveals reading rooms, partially shielded from the sunlight by the filigree metal cladding. The experience of height is replaced by width, timber hardwood floors for marbled ceramic, volume for metal ceilings. The conditioned white, minimal upper archive galleries are counter pointed by low, red banquette, viewing booths for the BFI archive – a space that looks set to become the library’s go-to snogging area, and which is symptomatic of the aspects of surprise and sociability being employed here. But while juxtaposition of spaces is deliberate and its effect immediate, subtle differences in the nature of the atrium are evident as you ascend. At the upper archive levels, crossed by a travelator, the book wall seems more imposing – looking through the roof light to the sky, its volume has a greater sense of gravitas, in line with the notion of research.
Herb gardens on terraces directly accessible from the reading rooms edge the ascent to the golden cylinder of the Shakespeare Memorial Library. Houben says these perform two functions – at the level of neighbouring buildings connecting the gardens with the scale of the square; and connecting the library to distant views of the southerly Lickey hills and Black Country to the north.
So has the gain of transferring the Library of Birmingham from its old concrete sarcophagus been worth the pain? I was cynical, but I can’t help but feel genuinely excited about the new building. The more I wandered through it, the more I sensed it craving occupation. It has grandeur where necessary and smaller scale, even intimacy, where appropriate. In contrast to its exterior of brash stacked volumes, internally it exhibits functional complexity. I have gripes – I would have made more of the amphitheatre space in Centenary Square as there’s a crudity to its area and quality of finish. And that contentious spirograph facade; while it unifies the many functions of the building, it still doesn’t quite convince in either its finish or its fixing back to the main structure. I live in hope that more affluent times will see it replaced for the Scarpa-esque bronze sections it actually deserves. But this is architecture with a big ‘A’, of strong formal moves; it’s bold and optimistic, ready for use now, yet open to change and reinvention. And it is, in an increasingly rare sense of the word, a truly civic building, designed for its users and not, like the British Library, for the books.
Walking back to New St station, also being redeveloped, I cross the square and through John Madin’s library, that with its brutalist dignity, benevolently accommodates the riot of shops clinging to its concrete piers like lichen to rock. Its form and atrium, I’m convinced, would look amazing in a new incarnation as the city’s anchor John Lewis store; when, to my mind the regeneration of Birmingham’s centre would be complete. Later, pulling out of the station, I’m aware for the first time of the rail viaducts spreading like a spider’s web out from the city – a brick datum which Birmingham’s natural levels peel away from and then rise up to meet. Like the library, Houben was also right about the hills.
Client Birmingham City Council
Architect and interior Mecanoo
Project management Capita Symonds
Engineering Buro Happold
Theatre consultant Theateradvies
Davis Langdon Schumann Smith
Planning consultant GVA
Contractor Carillion Building
Post tension concrete frame AJ Morrisroe
Facades Lindner Facades
Mechanical & electrical Emcor UK
Lifts, escalators and travelators Otis
Architectural metalwork JSM Engineering
Glazed partitions Optima Group
Landscaping external terraces Frosts & Prater
Contractor FFE Demco interiors
Book moving Nexu