Birmingham has more miles of canals than Venice. And although this is true, I have only ever heard this anecdote from local residents – and only in a sarcastic context. After all, it is quality, not quantity that counts and Venetian flair wins out over sheer quantity every time.
Besides, the city’s canals are an outdated boast anyway. Save for a stretch of attractive canal-side bars and restaurants in the city center, Birmingham’s waterways are realistically no more than a defunct relic of its industrial past.
And this is exactly why the city’s new public library is so important. Birmingham suffers an identity crisis. In lieu of a special or defining feature, residents have cultivated a regional persona characterized by sarcasm and self-deprecation (canal-based jibes being a case in point). As a key part of the current Big City Plan regeneration project, however, the new library serves to refocus this acerbic energy in a positive way. As the library is also Europe’s largest, residents can finally enjoy a positive boost and self-confident boast.
Rewinding a few years, Birmingham’s architectural renaissance started in 2003 with Benoy Architect’s mega shopping center, The Bullring. Since this landmark project, the city has added a new coach station, a train station, and a public recreational area called The Eastside Project. With the Eastside gardens facing the city’s busy railway lines, for example, the city seems determined to show-off its grand regeneration to anyone who cares to look.
Designed by Dutch architects Mecanoo, The Library of Birmingham was completed in the summer of 2013 (to the tune of £188.8 million) to replace an outdated 1970s brutalist structure.
The building covers ten floors connected by a series of interlocking rotundas that channel light from a glass skylight down into the spacious foyer. This central column is itself lined with balconies of bound books that turn browsing the library catalog into a public performance. Even something as innocuous as riding the escalator feels theatrical, while visitors move from floor to floor via blue-lit suspended catwalks.
Removed from this centerpiece are desk spaces and clusters of modern wing-backed armchairs. Though private, these spaces, too, receive plenty of light from ceiling-height windows touched by the shadows of the building’s metal façade. Mecanoo Architects claim that this filigree lattice exterior represents the city’s industrial heritage: the larger black circles mimic gasometers while the smaller silver ones represent the city’s jewelry trade. Visiting the library, though, I overhear visitors saying that the design looks like ‘lace lingerie’ or a ‘climbing frame.’ It sounds like the reign of dry wit is not quite over in Birmingham.
Even so, the building has met with an overwhelmingly positive response. In 2013, the Architects Journal voted the facility ‘building of the year’ and in mid-December, after less than four months of operation, it welcomed its millionth visitor. Voting with their feet, the public expressed their resounding approval.
At the same time, considering the decrease of analog media consumption due to technological advances, it may seem inappropriate to finance such a grandiose storage facility for actual physical books and paper publications. After all, PDFs and e-books simply don’t take up as much shelf space. Considering the looming replacement of physical media by their digital counterparts, the decision to develop such a large library may seem dated and even ignorant.
This building, however, is obviously so much more than just a place for books.
The Library of Birmingham houses a multimedia center, an art gallery, a children’s area, two cafés, a performance space, a theater, an open-air amphitheater, and a restaurant. The building also features two outdoor garden terraces – viewing platforms to enjoy and explore the city’s evolving panorama – and the so-called Shakespeare Memorial Room, an oak-paneled space that was painstakingly relocated from the 1881 Victorian Library to the top level of this facility.
As a beacon of progressive change, the Birmingham Library most of all serves as a public relations exercise to further the city’s self-image and boost its precarious status. Critics complain that the near-£200m project has been too costly. Against a backdrop of reduced service hours and local library closures, they might have a valid point. Nevertheless, as an investment in Birmingham’s faltering pride the facility seems to be worth every penny.
As the smoke settles over its industrial past, Birmingham is reinventing itself as a first-rate second city, the new library leading the charge to rewrite the city’s future as a cultural center and hub for the knowledge-based economy. Home to one of Europe’s youngest populations – with under-25s accounting for 40 percent of its constituents – and with more students than any other British city besides London, Birmingham’s rejuvenation has only just begun.
As for the visitors who compared the building to a climbing frame – they might be right, in a way! Whilst the metal façade was not literally designed for climbing, Birmingham is most certainly on the way up.
Find out more about Birmingham’s library here.
Text: James Roadnight
All images, incl. header, by Christian Richters