Birmingham’s bibliophiles will soon be able to browse over 400,000 books in the city’s new library, which opens its doors to the public next week. Designed by Dutch practice Mecanoo Architecten, who won the project in 2008, the Library of Birmingham is set to become a national cultural landmark as the city forges ahead with its major redevelopment plan.
‘We wanted to make a building that brings coherence to the urban network and architectural rhythm of Birmingham,’ explains Mecanoo architect Francine Houben. ‘Our dream is to create a "People’s Palace": inviting, welcoming, inspiring for all ages and backgrounds. One that entices passers-by to enter and embark on a journey of discovery.’
The library’s delicate filigree facade of interlocking metallic circles at first seems far removed from Birmingham’s skyline of brutalist blocks - but its design is strongly rooted in the city’s industrial and artisanal heritage. The large circles symbolise the craftsmanship of the steel industry, while the smaller ones hark back to the gold- and silversmiths of the city’s historic Jewellery Quarter.
Inside, the building’s ambitious programme - spanning 29,000 sq m, which makes it the largest public library in Europe - is connected via a series of overlapping rotundas that serve as the main vertical circulation route.
‘Everyone wanted to be on the ground floor,’ says Houben, ‘so we introduced several half-floors in the form of gently descending terraces.’ The children’s library is located on a spacious lower ground floor, along with the music library. An adjacent outdoor amphitheatre extends into Centenary Square, providing a performance space for music, drama, and poetry readings.
At the heart of the library lies the Book Rotunda, ringed by four levels of cantilevered circular balconies spread over three floors. Escalators zigzag across the space, connecting the different levels visually and physically. Interiors feature natural stone, white ceramic and oak flooring throughout.
Further up, specialist archive storage occupies the distinct Golden Box in the building, where the Library’s more fragile collections are kept safe in climatically controlled environments. ’This section is about showcasing what is normally hidden,’ explains Houben, who made the deliberate decision to bring the library’s vast archive up from the basement.
Visitors can travel by elevator through the upper part of the Book Rotunda to reach the Skyline Viewpoint, which offers a striking panorama view across the city. The golden rotunda on the roof of the building also houses the Shakespeare Memorial Room. An original feature from the city’s Victorian library, the reading room’s wooden paneling and glass cabinets were painstakingly dismantled then reassembled in its new home.
Birmingham, which has the somewhat dubious distinction as the original Spaghetti Junction, is working to overcome its reputation as a concrete thoroughfare and become a destination in its own right. The completion of the Library marks another milestone on the road to that goal.