First look: Birmingham's new £188m library - a sparkling cornerstone of the city's rebirth

It has more than twice the capacity of its predecessor, and is at the forefront of the city’s latest regeneration

Nick Clark
Thursday 29 August 2013 15:05
The new Library of Birmingham, designed by Francine Houben; right, the library interior
The new Library of Birmingham, designed by Francine Houben; right, the library interior

The protective hoardings have come down and the gleaming Library of Birmingham, a £188m monolith which stands in the city’s Centenary Square, has formed an indelible new impression on the city’s skyline.

At the press viewing before next Tuesday’s public opening, its glimmering gold tint sparkled in the summer sun. Inside, its series of interlocking halls appeared to herald what a library for the 21st century could look like.

At a time when library campaigners have predicted 400 closures in the next three years, Birmingham will unveil the largest public library in Europe next week, which aims to spearhead a “learning-led regeneration” of the city.

Brian Gambles, director of the library, said the institution would be at the forefront of the “second act of Birmingham’s renaissance”, following a regeneration programme that started in the 1980s. “The library is seen as at the cornerstone of trying to redefine Birmingham’s image both internally and externally,” he said.

The new building covers 31,000 square metres over 10 levels. More than 400,000 books will be readily available to the public – more than twice the previous library’s capacity.

Rory Olcayto, the deputy editor of Architects’ Journal, called it “one of the three most significant library projects to be completed in the last decade”.

“There’s no doubt it’s an iconic landmark building and appears to be thoughtfully integrated into the fabric of the city,” he added. “It’s the perfect antidote to iconic projects like the Shard and the Walkie Talkie [in London]. It is genuinely for the people in Birmingham and you won’t have to pay £25 to go to the top.”

Sharing a foyer and studio theatre with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, it also sits close to the Symphony Hall. The building’s extraordinary façade of interlaced metalwork was designed to reference the city’s “industrial and artisanal” past.

The project was completed in three years and the £188.8m was funded almost entirely by the local council, which approved the project in 2007. A year later, as the recession began, “we would have been having a different conversation,” the director admitted.

The building replaces the Birmingham Central Library, a controversial structure in the “brutalist” architectural style that was described as “no longer fit for purpose”. It is to be demolished over the next two years.

The new library was described as a “flagship project” of Birmingham City Council’s 20-year Big City Plan, which was launched in September 2010. The programme is designed to regenerate the city centre and includes the overhaul of New Street Station and the Eastside City Park.

“Birmingham has some fabulous cultural and learning attractions, yet they don’t punch at their weight,” Mr Gambles said.

Pointing to the Repertory Theatre, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Ikon, the Birmingham Opera Company and the Birmingham Hippodrome, he added: “Somehow there’s nothing that really spearheads them. The library isn’t more or less important than those other organisations, but simply through the presence of the iconic building that stands for learning and culture; that can drive a learning-led regeneration.”

The library was designed by Dutch architects Mecanoo after an international competitive process that attracted more than 100 tenders. Architect Francine Houben said grandly that she had designed a “People’s Palace” for the city.

The opening comes a decade, almost to the day, of the opening of the Bullring, one of the sites that helped lead Birmingham’s burst of retail-led regeneration.

While it is yet to open, passing members of the public were keen to air their views to The Independent. Amy Commander, 27, a marketing executive, said: “I think it’ll be a great thing to have in the city, I cannot wait for it to open. The old one wasn’t fit for purpose.” Tom Swallow, 78, agreed. “It’s absolutely beautiful,” he said.

But not all were quite so enamoured. One local resident, who refused to give his name, called the metal facade “legalised graffiti”. Another referred to it as looking like “barbed wire”.

Gina Massa, 23, a fundraiser, said: “When I first saw it, I thought it was hideous, that it jarred with the surroundings. But I’m getting more used to it. We need a library and it is certainly interesting. It should bring people in.”

The interior is made up of a series of interlocking circular halls. The book “rotunda” is at the heart, with daylight streaming in through the rooftop. There are two garden terraces overlooking the city, and an outdoor amphitheatre extending into the square in front.

The library will house the Birmingham City Archives, the Birmingham Collection, the city’s photographic collection of over 3.5 million items, as well as literature and music library which has special collections from local musicians including Black Sabbath, Duran Duran and The Streets.

The opening comes at a time when libraries around the country are under huge pressure from budget cuts, with many facing closure. The Library Campaign this year said the Government had hidden the true scale of the cuts and predicted that a further 400 libraries would close by 2016. That would take the total from 2009 to 1,000.

Mr Gambles said he hoped the new library would help tackle “the skills deficit around learning” in the city. “Birmingham suffered more than any other major city during the recession and part of that is because of the high levels of youth unemployment,” he said.

“We have a lot of young people and they’re not skilled enough. If the library can encourage learning, that seems to make a real contribution to what the city needs.”

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