The Library of Birmingham | Rewriting the book

Think of the coolest contemporary building in your city. A building which is innovative and cutting edge in both its form and function. I wonder if anyone has thought of a library? I suspect not. Unless perhaps if you live in Birmingham.

From working in the higher education sector over recent years, I have seen a new breed of ‘Learning Resource Hubs’ emerge; a new type of library which incorporates digital media and creates working areas where interaction is promoted. These are good buildings.

Whilst in Birmingham last week I visited the recently opened Library of Birmingham. It’s was designed by Mecanoo architects following a high profile RIBA international competition which attracted Fosters and Hopkins, amongst others. The building cost £190m to build, which is bold for a local authority to expend that much cash through such austere times. But this project has a long history and has seen numerous iterations, on two different sites, designed by different architects. I must admit; I knew very little about this building, other than having seen its ‘bling’ facades emerge when driving through the city.

20131124-205812.jpgThis building is like no other library I have experienced. It’s principle function is as a contemporary library, but it’s use is wide ranging. In its short life, it’s has become a visitor attraction and more than that; a community hub. I wandered around for a short while to understand the different levels and experience the different spaces. What was very evident was that this 35,000m2 building attracts every age and walk of life. People come here to read, relax, see the city, have business/ social meetings, see/ exhibit art, work, eat/ drink, surf the net and no doubt much more. The building had a positive, but respectful buzz of activity and interaction – not something you’d typically expect for a library. A trip up to the two external landscaped terraces provides good views of the city, although looking down onto Birmingham city centre is a real mixed bag!

Birmingham seems to have a history of pushing the boundaries when it comes to facades. The Selfridges Store at the Bull Ring was bold in its time. The facades of this new Library take a new dimension. The building envelope is extensively glazed and highly insulated to achieve strong sustainability credentials. But the appearance of the building is defined by its intricate, curvaceous extruded aluminium frieze. This is a German engineered and manufactured system which sits nearly a meter off the main facade. It’s gives the building great depth and articulation and looks equally impressive both in day and night time thanks to its reflective colours and uplighting.

IMG_6219aI strongly suspect that this is an architectural solution we will see more of in the future. The principle being; a simple, flat facade which provides high performance, with a decorative second layer which is completely open to creative freedom; not confined by windows, structure, services etc. Although the building envelope for this project cost £14m so it is expensive as well.

Circulating through the building is interesting. You travel on escalators through a series of connected atrium spaces. This gives you a great appreciation for the scale of the building. The bookshelves extend out to the facades radially on plan from the atrium. This optimises daylight penetration and creates generous spaces in between the books which have a wide range of seating areas. The top levels are accessed via a glass lift which passes the closed off archive facilities. The very top of the building has a final surprise; A wood-panelled room, originally designed by John Henry Chamberlain and built in 1882 to house the Birmingham Shakespeare Library. It has been dismantled, labelled and relocated to the rotunda. Its been called the Shakespeare Memorial Room. Having traveled though such a modern environment, it’s strange to arrive in a traditional old space at the top.

IMG_6248alibrary of birmingham sectionThis building is genuinely impressive on a number of levels, in both its use and form. I think it is a strong precedent for contemporary architecture and is well worth a visit if you’re in Birmingham. It’s definitely a building to see AND experience. I think other UK Cities could benefit from a building like this; something which adds to the City identity and creates a contemporary community facility.

The Library of Birmingham does rewrite the book, its just a shame its not more British!

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