Running rings around the competition

Monday 02 Sep 2013

Mecanoo and Buro Happold-designed Library of Birmingham opens 3 September

The striking new BREEAM Excellent £188.8m Library of Birmingham (UK) is 20% larger than its no longer fit-for-purpose predecessor and will display 400,000 of the institution’s 1 million text collection to the public.

The exterior of the publically-funded library has gained a lot of attention over the past months as construction has drawn to an end. Its filigree of metal circles is reminiscent of a Spirograph pattern and references the ‘interlocking stories of industrial heritage, jewellery, people and knowledge’ in the local area.

Occupying a former car park adjacent Centenary Square flanked by The Repertory Theatre (1971) and Baskerville House (1938) the new 31,000 sq m Library of Birmingham sits in the middle of what Lead Architect Francine Houben from Dutch practice Mecanoo calls the ‘red line’.

Houben spent days mapping her experience of the city and responding to the architectural rhythm of the existing site and routes, creating a theoretical ‘red line’ which connects the Bullring Shopping Centre, New Street Station, Centenary Square, the ICC, the canals (Birmingham has more than Venice) and The Westside (one of the most vibrant and dynamic districts in the city centre).

On the official press day earlier this month we navigated this route with Francesco Veenstra, Partner/Associate Architect from Moor Street Station and it allowed us to see the core routes and buildings of the city centre. We arrived at the library and gathered outside on Centenary Square.

The Repertory Theatre (The REP) has been integrated at ground floor level with the new library. The façade was renovated and the glazing replaced to improve its energy performance. The shared ground floor foyer space allows free-flowing access between the two buildings but can be closed to suit requirements.

We were joined by Patrick Arends, Associate Architect and Houben, who then showed us around the library.

The entrance lobby is double height and shaded by the cantilevered floors over. The visitor is drawn into the building via an ascending escalator or via a gentle ramp sloping down to the terraced children’s reading area and into the circular ‘light well’ below the square above.

Mecanoo’s winning concept (announced in 2008 by the City Mayor) aspired to create a truly public building, welcoming to all visitors, with public roof terraces and meeting spaces accessed via a sequence of ‘rotunda’, encouraging people up into the building.

The escalator offers access via the first ‘rotunda’ (a cathedral like space) to the Business and Learning Centre, with a second taking the visitor to the bottom of the 5-storey ‘book rotunda’ which reminds me of a ‘traditional’ library and offers a less contemporary library experience. Gallery and research spaces are accessible from the book rotunda as well as the first public roof terrace. A travelator transports the visitor to the top floor of the book rotunda and to the circular lift that ascend the next rotunda onto the floor housing staff offices and meeting rooms (which can also be hired for public use) and access to another roof terrace.

Above the glass lift is the penultimate rotunda, the glass roof serving as a source of natural daylight that filters down through the building. The Shakespeare collection (the second largest in the world) is housed in the Shakespeare Memorial Library created and designed in 1882 by John Henry Chamberlain. The Elizabethan style wood carved space was moved in its entirety from the former Central Library and reconstructed within the final rotunda atop the building, like a gold crown.

Rod Manson, Buro Happold Partner and Project Principal for the Library of Birmingham told WAN: “Fusing together Mecanoo’s creativity with Buro Happold’s innovative engineering philosophies has enabled us to deliver this major new landmark for the city and people of Birmingham both in time and on budget.

“The culmination of a five year design and construction process, our integrated design approach has delivered a low energy and sustainable public building of the highest quality; as a practice it’s a building we are really proud of and rightly so.”  

Houben furthers: “Investing in knowledge is a key factor for the future success of societies. Libraries play a crucial role in this because they stimulate the growth of a collective knowledge bank and support self-development. Therefore a library must truly be a public building. With this goal in mind, I have designed a ‘People’s Palace’ for Birmingham.”

This building exemplifies both the original concept and Houben’s aspiration. It is an investment into the future of Birmingham and shall inspire all those who visit it. It will encourage and promote the merging of the latest, modern cultural activities and technologies alongside older and more traditional practices.

Caroline Stephens

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