Arts Editor Terry Grimley takes a detailed look at the new Birmingham Library design.
It doesn’t have the simple elegance of Richard Rogers’ elliptical concept design for the abandoned library in Eastside, and some may even say it lacks the formal coherence of the existing building in Paradise Circus.
But the design by Mecanoo Architecten for a new Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square, demonstrates just how big a volume is required to house all its services on the car park next to the Birmingham Rep, plus the footprint of the Rep’s 1980s extension, which is to be demolished.
One of many myths which have circulated since the council first addressed the idea of building a new library nearly a decade ago was that this one would be smaller than the existing building. In fact it is a little more than 20 per cent larger, and will have room for at least 15 years’ expansion of the archives.
Mecanoo founding partner Francine Houben talks about her concept of the Rep, the new library and Baskerville House as three “palazzos”, each with a distinctive segment of Centenary Square in front of it. But there’s no doubt whose palazzo is biggest, with the library towering over its neighbours.
This sheer scale, which evidently came as a shock to some people seeing images for the first time, is partly explained by the decision to go down only one floor.
The business plan, which set out to demonstrate that the necessary space could be accommodated on the site, envisaged four basement levels.
Actually the question of how many floors the Mecanoo design has is not a simple one to answer. The official count is ten, not including the small dome or pill-box on the top which is intended to house the Shakespeare Memorial Room, the preserved fragment of JH Chamberlain’s Victorian library.
The lowest two levels are themselves divided in two. The ground floor, which will connect directly with the Rep’s entrance foyer, will have a mezzanine floor continuous with the Rep’s first-floor foyer which sweeps round in an arc.
The basement or lower ground floor will have an intermediate level at the back of the building to house the children’s library (openings above allow natural light into it), while the music library at the lowest level extends out under the square.
This leads to one of the building’s most imaginative stokes. A circular opening or amphitheatre will enable people in the square to look down into an open area directly accessible only from the music library. In the summer chamber music or other kinds of performance could be given here.
This is one example of how Mecanoo have tried to open up the library to interact with the outdoors. Another is a garden terrace facing out over the square and Baskerville House at third floor level while there is another “hidden garden” at the back of the building where readers can sit looking out over the gardens beyond Cambridge Street.
For all its bulk, the shape of the building, rather like a stack of books, reflects the functions of each floor, and in contrast to the blank concrete walls of the existing library it will have a high degree of transparency.
In addition to its size and the opening in the square, another attention-grabbing and potentially controversial aspect of the design is the decorative metal mesh, based on a pattern of interlocking circles, in which it is encased. This is Mecanoo’s attempt to reflect the history and craftsmanship of this metal-bashing city, at the same time as providing the practical function of shielding the interior from the sun.
The centrepiece of yesterday’s launch was a model which arrived in the city only in the morning and is so new that you could still smell the glue. This gave the best opportunity to appreciate the interesting sequence of internal spaces.
Like the present library the new one will include escalators, though they will bypass certain floors housing archives to which there is no public access. While in the present library the various floors repeat the same layout, here there will be much more of a sense of an evolving journey as you move through the building.
Interior images already suggest that a lot of care is going into decisions about colours and materials, and Mecanoo’s previous library at the Technical University of Delft is encouraging from that point of view.
In Delft the architects were keen to get books out on display, and the new Birmingham library will provide opportunities to make the library’s collections far more visible.
That includes a considerable increase in gallery space to mount exhibitions from the library’s internationally important collection of photographs.
* The present Central Library will host an exhibition on the new designs, opening on April 20 and running for four weeks.