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Library of Birmingham by Mecanoo

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Libraries are where you go to escape and discover other worlds, and Mecanoo has provided an expansive and multi-layered location for this activity, writes Piers Gough

Libraries are both solid civic repositories of accumulated knowledge and, for the individual, open escapes into the ethereal realm of the imagination. At the Library of Birmingham (AJ 27.09.13), it’s very much the latter that is celebrated: library as people’s palace of discovery.

Sitting in the middle of Centenary Square or, rather, levitating above it, the library defies any sense of heavy repository in favour of an image of the floating of the imagination. Its four stacked boxes bring order to the square and are suitably civic, but are dematerialised by Mary Quant-style screens and a gold band. The latter cleverly implies an extra step in the stack that doesn’t really exist.


The entrance space is as soaringly high as the portico promises. All is very clear. There is the information desk to the left; lift and stairs core and café with a discreet mezzanine to the right; inviting elevators straight ahead; and, beyond, a view of x-shaped bookstacks, under the huge windows at the far end - a good place to start browsing novels and trying out one of the many deliciously deep armchairs. The colour palette here is austere slate grey floor, concrete grey columns, white walls and black ceiling. The lift and stair core, however, is picked out all the way up the building in Yves Klein blue.

The next colour to pitch in is the egg-yolk yellow of the basement floor. The basement contains the children’s section and story steps. Much more charming is the doughnut of space around the circular courtyard, which turns out to be the music library.

Travelling up the escalator gives a first glimpse of the building’s brilliant central architectural device. Cylindrical circulation voids are shifted relative to each other so that they only partially overlap. The three mini-atriums are vertiginously connected on the diagonal following the escalators and travelators that vault across the various strata of the library.

The middle cylinder has been used as a most seductive evocation of the continuous vertical bookstacks of gorgeous libraries of old. Five levels of books are accessed by black steel balconies and steep narrow stairs. The bookstacks around each void radiate invitingly and lead out to well-occupied wi-fi work tops around the perimeter. The external fenestration spacing dictates the generous widths of each desk, elegantly framing each individual. The overlapping circular screens look lovely from the inside and throw some great shadows. It’s all very quiet.


Where the third-floor plan steps back on the south and east sides, it allows beautifully laid-out and spacious public terraces scattered with seemingly endless long curved benches.

The fourth floor sports a golden ceiling above the archive search facility. From here, a dinky cylindrical lift takes you up to the seventh floor. Up here, the setbacks create terraces to the north and west, and you find yourself level with the tops of tower blocks and overlooking red-brick Birmingham. On the top floor, and within a golden cylinder is the super-surreal Shakespeare Memorial Room, transplanted lock, stock and barrel vault from the 1882 Central Library.

The whole experience is one of expansive generosity inside and out. People seem to quietly space themselves out as if in a park or on the beach. Modern libraries aim to be communal but are actually where you go to escape the narrow confines of community and discover worlds beyond. Of all the public arts buildings, the library has the least group activity and is the most individual. Losing yourself in a book in a huge and lovely library like this successfully reflects the liberating anonymity of the city itself.

  • Piers Gough is a partner at CZWG


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