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Supersize Mecanoo: Birmingham Library by Mecanoo

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Birmingham’s new mega-library might be the last of its kind. But that won’t stop it from becoming a great public building, writes Jay Merrick. Photography by Christian Richters

There is a modestly sized golden protrusion at the summit of the Library of Birmingham. It contains the original interior of the Shakespeare Memorial Room, designed by John Henry Chamberlain in 1882 for the city’s Central Library. Looking down from this, the emblematic ark of the world’s second-biggest archive of the Bard’s work, we might be tempted to murmur a satire of Hamlet’s most famous lines:
To iconise, or not to iconise: that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the practice to suffer
The options and iterations of outrageous
Or to take arms against a sea
of visions,
And by opposing end them? To conceive;
to reconceive;
No more; and by deliverance to say we end
The heartache …

In Birmingham, the heartache concerned Richard Rogers’ scheme for a new library in the early noughties, which was swallowed in a grimpen mire of cost-shock hubris. The city had been desperate for international architectural recognition and in 2009, after Mecanoo beat practices including OMA, Hopkins, Schmidt Hammer Lassen and Wilkinson Eyre to the resurrected project, Birmingham’s urban development supremo, Clive Dutton, let me in on another grand projet: ‘We’re going to illuminate Spaghetti Junction - you’ll be able to see it from space!’

Birmingham Library

And thus, even if Mecanoo’s principal, Francine Houben had no obvious intention of designing an £188.8 million architectural icon, that is certainly what Birmingham now has. She always saw the building as a People’s Palace, and it is bruited as Europe’s biggest public cultural building.

Her notes from an early research trip suggest that the design began in the spirit of Walter Benjamin. ‘For three days my husband and I endlessly walk through this city I’ve never been to before,’ she wrote. ‘I observe and photograph everything that catches my eye in order to unravel the essence of the city and the people.’

When they try to walk the shortest route to the theatre, they’re confronted by the highways that cut through the city centre. ‘After the show we decide to follow the crowd and discover they take a logical, informal pedestrian route right through the heart of the city. I call this route the Red Line as it connects the Bullring shopping centre, New Street Station, New Street, Victoria Square, Centenary Square, the ICC, the canals, Brindleyplace and the Westside area. The library site is in the middle of the Red Line. When following the Red Line, the entire architectural and urban history of Birmingham passes by like a film… scattered around the city, the steel skeletons of gas holders catch my eye.’

Birmingham Library

Brum, The Film is a badly spliced urban cut-up, and the new library is a moment of architectural differential focus in the city centre’s inoperable herniations of topography and infrastructure. To stretch a point, we might say that the new building completes a trio of palazzos. The library is conjoined with the Brutalist-cum-baroque form of Graham Winteringham’s 1971 REP theatre on one side (Mecanoo has configured the connections deftly), and on the other, Cecil Howitt’s stripped Neo-classical Baskerville House.

Mecanoo’s design proposes a new kind of cultural comos, a max libris - possibly the last supersized public library that will be built in a Britain seething with information technology. The architecture offers no specific sense of type; despite its striking features, it’s ultimately equivocal. The atrium and floorplate configuration mean that in 20 years the building could very easily be transformed into a corporate headquarters for, say, Dutton Space Travel plc.

The library has four notable characteristics: large and versatile floorplates at basement and ground levels, and across the two levels above; an asymmetrical atrium that effectively punches down through the entire section; a decorative metal screen over the glazed facades; and elevated open-air gardens on the projecting shoulders of the upper levels.

We can deal with the last two features summarily, deploying a brickbat and a triumphal garland. The facade’s metal screen of big interlocking circles is meant to do four things: de-mass the building, cast pleasant shadows internally, hint at the overlapping radii of the atrium, and signify Birmingham’s 19th-century reputation as metal-bashers to the world, and the city’s so-called Jewellery Quarter.

Birmingham Library

The ghosts of those metal-bashers would look askance at some of the building’s basic details; but it’s hard to tell if this is a design or construction quality issue. The Italian ceramic floor tiles, white with wavering pale grey scribbles, recall heel-scuffed lino.

However, it’s a beta for the screen’s de-massing effect, beta-plus for the shadows and circular hinting, and a report-to-the-headmaster for symbolism. Despite its overwrought haptic chutzpah, the bangled screen is darkly anodyne. By contrast the external elevated gardens are brilliant in conception, and landscaping.

Internally, the design is anchored to the centre of a section in which the atrium rises through the eight upper levels in four off-kilter segments, whose positions have been very successfully calculated: the fall of light reaches the excellent subsurface children’s library, which pushes outwards under Centenary Square and leads to a sunken, circular open-air piazza, which Houben thinks ideal for relaxed gatherings or impromptu concerts. She has certainly added something charming to Centenary Square, which has as much character as the deck of a concrete aircraft carrier.

At the centre of the section, and more or less so in the plan, the Book Rotunda and the zig and zag of the long escalators rising from the ground-floor reception space to the top level of the rotunda form a conceptual and physical locking-piece; experientially, there is a faintly Constructivist vibe that might, for some, recall Liubov Popova’s painting Spatial Force Construction.

Birmingham Library

The main functional programming is generally layered through the section, with the most open and flexible public spaces on the three levels above ground floor. Offices are literally back of house, and the massive Shakespeare archive sits astride levels five and six. The criss-cross of sightlines, horizontally and diagonally through the upper portions of the atrium, and the floorplates off it, give this part of the library visual and spatial vivacity; and these effects have been achieved with a great deal of sensual design intelligence.

As a whole, the architecture of the Library of Birmingham seems bold and hopeful - as polemical, in its way, as Winteringham’s REP, though less likely to become an architectural curio. And this, despite the fact that at its very heart the world of books is celebrated iconically - Francine Houben’s words - as if that world were already virtual or ironic. Those curving bookshelves, those brightly coloured and rather too immaculate book spines, are literary wallpaper.

Shakespeare’s contemporary John Donne said that, ‘Death is an ascension to a better library’. He also said: ‘Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing’. Francine Houben may well have designed a better kind of library. But if it is to become a great public thing, rather than a white elephant, it must succeed as a generalist People’s Palace. Its architecture will allow it to do so.

Jay Merrick is architecture critic at The Independent

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