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New £188m Library Of Birmingham pushes the boundaries

Already a landmark feature on one of the city centre’s prime locations visitors will get their first glimpse inside the new building in Centenary Square on Tuesday

The opening of the new Library of Birmingham marks a historic day for the city and the culmination of more than a decade of debate, development and construction.

The £188 million investment has delivered the dramatic library towering nine stories above Centenary Square as well as a level below.

Already a landmark feature on one of the city centre’s prime locations visitors will on Tuesday get their first glimpse inside.

It is has been designed as a library combined with a cultural centre, offering a theatre, exhibition spaces, places to read and relax or browse some 400,000 books.

It also promises easier access to the city’s renowned archives of books, journals, documents and photographs. The building also houses the latest information technology with archives offered online.

Tuesday’s grand opening is the culmination of a development which began at the turn of the century when a political consensus grew among the city council leaders that the old Central Library was out of date, no longer fit for purpose and would require such fundamental investment to adapt it for the 21st century.

The Birmingham Central Library pictured in 1978
 

 It should also not be underestimated that the Paradise Circus site is ripe for redevelopment as part of the ongoing plan to break Birmingham City Centre’s concrete collar – a process which began with the demolition of Masshouse Circus.

But the first plans for a replacement put forward by Labour leader Sir Albert Bore’s last administration in 2003-04 were drawn up by Sir Richard Rogers as a centrepiece for the new Eastside City Park, with a price tag approaching £150m.

At a cabinet meeting in 2004 the then Tory opposition leader Mike Whitby described the project as a ‘‘virility symbol’’ designed to boost egos of the Labour leadership and immediately shelved the project after assuming control of the council a few months later.

What followed was three years of wrangling over the new facility – with Sir Albert Bore’s Labour pushing for the Eastside plan, while some Tories backed a split-site proposal – with a lending service at Baskerville House and archives and research facilities at Millennium Point. A further option considered was to demolish and rebuild on the Paradise Circus site.

Debate was fierce and questions still remained, even before the economic crash, over where the funding would come from.

Then, towards the end of 2007, the current proposal came forward.

Mike Whitby and the Library Of Birmingham in 2012(Image: Simon Hadley)
 

A proud council Leader Mike Whitby, joined by actor Simon Callow representing the Birmingham Rep Theatre, announced that the Centenary Square car park would be the site for the new Library, with auditorium and reception areas shared with the neighbouring Rep.

Council chief executive Stephen Hughes was credited with raising funding, mostly through long term loans, to meet the then £193 million price tag. A delay of a few months and the oncoming economic downtown might have seen the development scuppered.

Sceptics still doubted that the site was large enough for the library and having seen it raised high above the neighbouring Baskerville House argue they have been proved right.

Others questioned the wisdom of lumbering the city council’s shrinking leisure services budgets with substantial loan repayments.

But the construction was pushed through – enthusiastically led from the front by council leader Mike Whitby at every major stage, including the appointment of Dutch architects Mecanoo, the first day on site and the topping off ceremony.

 

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