Is this the last hurrah for modern bookish bigness?


Jay Merrick
Thursday 29 August 2013 01:06

The new Library of Birmingham ticks all the boxes as far as so-called landmark architecture is concerned. Designed by Mecanoo, a star international practice. Slightly wild façade. Even more dramatic central atrium, spiralling up through the building. And at the pinnacle, a golden ark containing the city’s original 1882 Shakespeare archive room.

We could expect nothing less. Birmingham has become increasingly desperate to be on the world’s modern architectural map. In 2009, the city’s development supremo, Clive Dutton, told me: “We’re going to illuminate Spaghetti Junction – you’ll be able to see it from space!”

The library suggests a kind of Starship Enterprise, wreathed in supersized metal bangles and looming chunkily above Birmingham’s Centennial Square. It’s not that Mecanoo’s widely admired principal, Francine Houben, hasn’t produced a very interesting building – the library is, in many ways, an architectural tour de force. Indeed, she has reinvented the form as far as British libraries go.

But is the Library of Birmingham a last architectural hurrah for modern bookish bigness? The previous exemplar was the massive British Library in London, completed in 1997. Houben has given Birmingham its own max libris, in which books are present, but more as fetish objects in interiors whose most important features are flexible floorplates.

Internally, the building has been configured with a bravura confidence. It is effectively “open” from top to bottom, and the sightlines across different spaces and levels ensure a strong sense of shared, easy to get at resources; the overall vibe that is more cool WiFi zone than humble hush.

The design of the children’s library is superb, and the garden terraces are a masterstroke. Yet there are nagging faults. The detailing is often clunky, and there is the usual modernist stumbling over crafted materials. Why go to the expense of using Italian ceramic floor tiles if the patterns you bake onto them make them look like scuffed white lino?

Birmingham City Council has its architectural icon. More important will be whether the library works as a dynamic socialising and educational tool. In an information age when, as Karl Marx mused in 1848, “all that is solid melts into air”, the heroic design is already a throwback. But as a democratic organism, its architecture seems forward-looking.

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