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Houben on Library of Birmingham

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Francine Houben, director of Mecanoo, on the Stirling Prize-shortlisted Library of Birmingham

What was your initial design concept?

Our dream was to create a People’s Palace: inviting and inspiring for all ages and backgrounds - a real public building. And we think a real public building deserves an outdoor public space, one that entices passers-by to enter and embark on a journey of discovery, with visitors moving from one floor to the next through interconnected and overlapping rotunda spaces that serve as the main vertical circulation route. Changing vistas and view lines unfold as you navigate through the building. On the lower levels the route continues below ground and resurfaces in Centenary Square. At this point the interior route weaves itself with the exterior Red Line - an informal red brick pedestrian route that runs right through the heart of the city; the building becoming an extension of the civic life.

Did the executed project differ from this initial concept?

It is amazing for me that this project became exactly how we envisioned it to be. Our very first sketches are still clearly recognisable.

What was the client’s input?

We worked very closely with Birmingham City Council to realise its ambition for an innovative and world-class library integrated with the REP theatre. We talked a lot about the city’s archive. One might expect the archives to be in the basement but, in collaboration with library director Brian Gambles, we decided to bring them high above ground.

What was the project’s most challenging aspect?

As a public building, the project included an array of stakeholders. It was vital that the design represented them in a meaningful way at each stage of the project. A further challenge was that this was our first large-scale project in the UK.

What is the most important lesson you have taken from this project?

There were many lessons, from adapting to a new way of working to building knowledge on the many regulations that apply to public buildings. We also never expected that so many visitors would be drawn to the Shakespeare Memorial Room at the top of the building.

Where does this building sit within the evolution of the practice?

Each project represents growth and development, with our more recent projects, such as the library, having a greater impact and influence on a broader society.

How do you think the building complements its immediate surroundings?

We felt the design should fit into the architectural and urban rhythm of the city, so we made a critical decision that the library and REP Theatre would not become one building, but two. Together with Baskerville House, they now form an ensemble of three ‘palazzos’ along a square, each of its own time period, with its own materialisation.


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