Saturday, 7 September 2013

Library of Birmingham...

DISCLAIMER: Contains mild gushing, including strongly positive adjectives and one 
instance of the word "phantasmagorical". Not suitable for the cynically-minded.
The Library of Birmingham
First things first: the new Library of Birmingham is absolutely fantastic! 

I spent last weekend there in preparation for taking part in the inaugural event which happened on Tuesday. This culminated in Malala Yousafzai's inspirational speech as she declared the building open (here's a link, in case you missed it!)

I played the trombone at this event in a Super Critical Mass project bringing over 100 brass players together around the building's main rotunda to create a cacophony of sound:

 Janet McKay from Super Critical Mass explaining
the piece to us during rehearsals

Brass players were stationed all around
the colourful main book rotunda
My pBone! 

The end result was highly abstract-sounding and experimental piece of music, it has to be said but the kind people of Birmingham seemed to enjoy it and gave us a lot of good feedback! Participants from local youth orchestras took part and their energy and enthusiasm ensured it was a fun experience to be a part of. It was also quite exciting to watch the preparations for the opening taking place all around us:

A window cleaner hard at work before the big day
During this summer's Cycling for Libraries, our tour was lucky enough to visit TU Delft where the Library of Birmingham's architect, Francine Houben (who had studied at the University there) explained the building's unique design to us. She talked about how the library works a series of experiences and it's true that as you move through the building, you do get the sense of these separate but inter-linked spaces each having a character of their own. These sections are also all interspersed with features designed to entice and fascinate the visitor, including a BFI Mediatheque, a gallery and the two roof gardens (the Discovery Terrace and the 'Secret Garden'). The building is centered around the book rotunda with its massive light well beaming natural sunlight down onto parts of the floors below. At the bottom is the Children's Library, with this lower ground floor space opening out into a circular amphitheater which sits beneath the pavement of Birmingham's main Centenary Square. The design also incorporates the Shakepeare Memorial Room. This room was originally built as part of Birmingham's second Central Library (which opened in 1882). When this building was demolished to make way for the brutalist concrete third incarnation of the library in 1974, the Shakespeare room was confined to storage in poor conditions. The new design gives this room pride of place at its very summit:

Mecanoo's design for the Library of Birmingham, showing how sections are distinct from each other & the Shakespeare Room at the top
The building also boasts impressive sustainability credentials, having achieved a BREEAM Excellent Award. The new library operates at 50% of the energy costs of the previous Birmingham Central Library.

The building offers some unexpected and interesting sight-lines
Books and access to information remain at the heart of what the library does, with over 240 PCs, enhanced Wi-Fi, multi-touch screens displaying documents from the library's vast archive and a new look website. However, the library also now aims to give users ample opportunity to create and to collaborate. A major new part of the building's vast array of services is the Business Centre which intends to help kick-start 500 new enterprises every year. The Central Library's role as a cultural and entertainment centre is also highlighted in this mixed-use building. The library is attached to the pre-existing Repertory Theatre ('The REP') which celebrates its centenary this year and the two buildings share a performance space. There are two cafés too - one at the main entrance and the second on the 3rd floor (which is more of a bar, really - let's be honest!)..

Beer and wine are available from the 3rd floor 'Library Café'
The Library of Birmingham's creative directors have also incorporated installations dotted around the building which give the place the sense of being alive and ready to be interacted with. One of my favourite examples was the 'Library of Secrets' (below, left). This was created by Serena Korda who invites visitors to anonymously write down their innermost confessions on scraps of paper and then leave these in the books. Elsewhere there is the 'Library of Lost Books' collection, curated by Susan Cruse, where discarded books have been turned into works of art:
Part of the 'Library of Lost Books' collection
'The Library of Secrets

At the front entrance, 'The Commentators' kept visitors and staff amused with their quirky observations on what was going on in the building. Their commentary was transmitted live as a webcastThe sunken amphitheater was also used to good effect, providing a space for poetry and more brass music. Other participatory initiatives include a "1,000 faces of Birmingham" project, broadcasting a cross-section of random Brummies on plasma screens and murals around the building!:

A participant in the 1,000 faces project, who happened to be
there on the day, getting his photo taken with his picture!

Former Poet Laureates of Birmingham gave recitals (left) & brass players performed in the amphitheater (right) during the opening event
Over and above all of this, however the building has a phantasmagorical quality; there's something dream-like about the way it stands out so completely from all other buildings in Centenary Square, as if it landed there from somewhere else entirely. The bold design has drawn criticism from some quarters, inevitably, as bold architecture always will. As I watched crowds of over 1,000 people gathered at the entrance prior to the opening, it started to resemble something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind as the amassed throng took tentative steps towards the front doors. Some queued for up to an hour to see just what this curious behemoth had in store for them.

Crowds clammering outside the stanchions at the front
 of the Library of Birmingham just before opening

The travelator which transports visitors across the top levels of the book rotunda 
gives a Space Age feel to this otherwise more traditional room

Whilst I could rave on and on about how great the new building is, I can also appreciate that there are some legitimate causes for concern, of course. Those who are not so keen on the project point to the cost of the building and the business interests involved. Estimates of the true long term costs have even been quoted as high as £590m. The Library of Birmingham's director, Brian Gambles ominously talks of the continued "need to find ways to generate commercial income". In The Economist, Mr Gambles cites retail, hiring out the library's facilities and catering as commercial opportunities being exploited at present but it is unclear how this continued need for income will manifest itself in future.

 The ominous threat of privatisation. Picture taken from the 
website of campaign group 'Birmingham against the Cuts' 

Some have also questioned whether it is suitable that this library has opened at a time when so many libraries are being closed across the UK. Here's an example of this argument from the Stop the Privatisation of Public Libraries blog, pointing to a "28% budget cut, 10% cut in opening hours [and] 37% cut in staffing" for Birmingham libraries as a whole. In fairness, it should be noted that this building was commissioned in 2007 which was before the public spending cuts took hold. Also, in what is an utter hodgepodge of local strategies for dealing with library funding cuts across the UK, Birmingham is one council which should be given some credit, I feel, for being a local authority which is committed to keeping its libraries open. This is in direct contrast with Brent Council (as I have outlined in some detail previously on this blog) or Newcastle, as another example, where the opening of a new and similarly fantastic central library building in 2009 now threatens to bring about the closure of as many as 10 local public libraries in the area. 

It remains to be seen what the future holds for this magnificent public building but in the meantime I would urge the critics to go and visit, to see the incredible range of uses visitors are making of their new 'People's Palace' and to appreciate it for the architectural feat of discovery and adventure that it is. The largest public library space in Europe has also already attracted the sort of overwhelmingly positive global media coverage which I feel can encourage renewed interest in libraries. I can completely understand where critics are coming from but to my mind the massive investment (the official figure is somewhere near £189 million) is worth every penny. As Malala emphasised in her impassioned speech, the Library of Birmingham will continue to enlighten future generations; I hope too that it will continue to offer life-affirming and even life-transforming experiences freely to its millions of annual visitors for many years to come.

A computer-generated fly-through of the new Library of Birmingham, looking remarkably 
similar to the real thing (except for the stone-statue people, obviously!)

The Library of Birmingham and the Super Critical Mass brass project featured on 'The Culture Show' on Tuesday September 10. 


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