Birmingham’s towering, shiny, new library opened today. Back when it was nothing more than a big hole in the ground, I honestly remember thinking: why is everyone so excited about a library?! Well, it’s here and the building has received a shower of positive news coverage at a time when the media is usually reporting library closures, and more importantly, it seems to have filled Brummies with (uncharacteristic) ebullience and civic pride. I’m already looking forward to taking a look inside.
Amongst the early round of press coverage I spotted an article on architecture and design blog Dezeen which stood out for including the architect’s own project description. Francine Houben of Mecanoo sets out her thinking behind the design, and whether you are a fan of the building or not, it’s a fascinating and personal insight. She begins with her first visit to Birmingham in 2008, when Mecanoo had become one of the seven shortlisted architecture firms for the project (which also includes the neighbouring Birmingham REP theatre). As she elegantly put its, ‘the written and the spoken word will be united’.
For three days my husband and I endlessly walk through this city I’ve never been to before. I observe and photograph everything that catches my eye in order to unravel the essence of the city and the people. In the evening we go to a performance at the REP Theatre. From our hotel we try to take the shortest route by foot to the theatre but on our way we are blocked by highways that cut through the city centre. After the show we decide to follow the crowd and discover they take a logical, informal pedestrian route right through the heart of the city. I call this route the ‘Red Line’ as it connects the Bullring Shopping Centre, New Street Station, New Street, Victoria Place, Centenary Square, the ICC, the canals, Brindley Place and the Westside. The new library site is located in the middle of the Red Line next to the existing REP in Centenary Square.
Two things strike me during our walks. First, when following the Red Line, the entire architectural and urban history of Birmingham passes by like a film. The city breathes a rich industrial history: Gothic buildings from the 17th, 18th and early 19th century, Victorian Classicist buildings such as Birmingham Town Hall from 1834, as well as many Victorian buildings made with beautiful craftsmanship… Also in this frame are buildings such as the Baskerville House from the early 20th century and concrete buildings such as the existing library from the 1960s, the ICC from the eighties, and the Bullring Shopping mall with the Selfridges blob from 2003. Scattered around the city, the steel skeletons of gas holders catch my eye.
The second thing I notice is that Birmingham is built on gently sloping hills. It’s a green city, except for the city centre. I love these soft hills. They remind me of my native province of Limburg in the South of the Netherlands. I notice the way train tracks cut through these hills and valleys, appearing and disappearing in the landscape. Birmingham is the geographical centre of the UK and a junction of the British railroads. One train tunnel runs underground diagonally through Centenary Square. It occurs to me that we can surely build underground here, whereas in my own country this is a challenge. This idea becomes a source of inspiration.
After three days my dream slowly starts to take shape. Back at the office we develop our ideas further. Does the client expect us to make an icon? For sure we do not want to design a building that is just another “incident”. We want to make a building that brings coherence to the urban network of Birmingham. Our dream is to create a People’s Palace: inviting, welcoming, inspiring for all ages and backgrounds – a real public building that also creates an outdoor public space. One that entices passers-by to enter and embark on a journey of discovery. We imagine visitors moving from one floor to the next through interconnected and overlapping rotunda spaces that serve as the main vertical circulation route. Changing vistas and view lines unfold as you navigate through the building. On the lower levels the route continues below ground nearly to the train tunnel that passes in front of the building, and resurfaces in Centenary Square. At this point this interior route weaves itself with the ‘Red Line’ route revealing a piece of the inner library world to the public.
The full description along with plans and lots of lovely images are included in the Dezeen article. There is also an exciting opening festival in and around the library curated by Capsule – check out the programme.