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Library of Birmingham
Howard Watson applauds Mecanoos designs for a new library in Birmingham
and the aim to bring coherence to the city centre, but questions the
destruction of the nearby Central Library, an unusual Brutalist building by
John Madin, which is to make way for a further retail/leisure scheme.
Mecanoo Architecten, Library
of Birmingham, Birmingham,
due for completion 2013
Concept design for the library
with the glass facade encased
in metal filigree.
British urban planning may often appear to be beset by
extraordinary short-termism, with projects realised in
seemingly blinkered isolation, regardless of an
overarching rationale to solve major problems. However,
Birmingham City Council has initiated a far-sighted
approach with a 20 billion, 20-year Big City Plan to
overhaul the centre of the second largest city in Britain.
At the heart of the plan to shake off Birmingham s old
image as an unfocused, cultureless, concrete jungle will
be the largest public library building in Europe. The
councils level of ambition is typified by the
appointment of Dutch architects Mecanoo Architecten,
responsible for the highly acclaimed library at Delft
Technical University.
Mecanoos approach is to dismiss any idea that there
should be a contemporary library typology. Consequently,
the 193 million, 31,000-square-metre (333,681-
square-foot) development, due to open in 2013, will be
inspired by the librarys specific resources, which
include an enormous local archive. The architecture will
also be linked to the design traditions of Birmingham
and its industrial past. The receding and projecting box
shapes of its glass facade will be covered with a metal
filigree of overlapping circles, inspired by local ironwork,
while the cubic volumes will reflect the buildings
neighbours on either side the 1960s concrete
Birmingham Repertory Theatre, which will also undergo
some redevelopment and share a foyer with the library,
and the 1930s stone Baskerville House office building.
Both the outside frame and the interior rotundas play on
the idea of pushing sections out from a core volume.
This will aid circulation, natural light and ventilation
inside, while also creating a projected balcony for
viewing events on the square as well as three levels of
elevated outdoor/garden areas with panoramic views.
The library will have a significant role in the
reformulation of public space in the heart of the city.
Francine Houben, a founding partner of Mecanoo, says
that the aspiration is to Bring coherence. Dont add
another icon bring coherence! She also feels that the
responsibility to bring the public to the outside space is
as important as the interior. Consequently, Centenary
Square, which sits in front of the library and its two large
neighbours, will be redeveloped as a destination
currently it is just a broad pedestrian thoroughfare which
offers no sense of place. The section in front of the library will look
down into an outdoor, sheltered amphitheatre below ground level. In
tandem with the adjacent Symphony Hall and the Rep, the library will
bring a unified cultural and social focus to the centre of the city.
Mecanoos design for the library is both considerate and original,
but the fate of the nearby Central Library leads one to be wary of the
evangelism behind the plan to create a new identity for Birmingham.
Local architect John Madins building, a unique inverted ziggurat
completed in 1974, may not be beloved of all but, as one of
Birminghams most famous buildings and an unusual example of
British Brutalism, it is worthy of thorough consideration for
redevelopment and reuse rather than obliteration. It is to make way for
what Clive Dutton, Birminghams Director of Planning and
Regeneration, calls another Brindley Place, which, like the original
Brindley Place a canalside retail/leisure project that helped initiate a
reappraisal of Birmingham 15 years ago will be masterminded by
property developers Argent. In retrospect, Brindley Place offers very
little sense of architectural legacy, while its chain shops and
restaurants are almost entirely devoid of uniqueness or local
character. One can admire the determination to address the need for
metropolitan development, but vigilance is required to ensure that the
bravura does not threaten the citys established urban character and
sense of place. 4+
Howard Watson is an author, journalist and editor based in London. He is co-author, with
Eleanor Curtis, of the new 2nd edition of Fashion Retail (Wiley-Academy, 2007), 34.99. See Previous books include The Design Mix: Bars, Cocktails and Style (2006) and
Hotel Revolution: 21st-Century Hotel Design (2005), both also published by Wiley-Academy.
Text 2010 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images: pp 142, 143(b) Courtesy Birmingham
City Council; p 143(t) Mecanoo Architecten
right: Artists impression of the proposed amphitheatre
in front of the librarys overhanging, frontal projection.
below right: Concept design for Centenary Square and
the Library of Birmingham, which will be linked to the
existing Birmingham Repertory Theatre (left) to form a
collective centre for creativity and education.