Dave Woodhall’s view of the new Library of Birmingham.
A lot of words are being said about the new Library of Birmingham, which is opening next Tuesday, 3rd September. Some of them will no doubt be patronising, others downright insulting. The city has always been an easy target for both.
I’ll leave the descriptions of the architecture to those who can describe it better, but from the outside it looks impressive. To me, anything that is on public display should inspire debate and the library’s design will be an obvious talking point. It’ll certainly be eye-catching.
From what I’ve seen so far of the inside, that’s a bit special as well. The focal point of a central atrium takes visitors into the heart of the library, where to put it in layman’s terms there’s a lot of books. Sorry for stating the obvious, but that’s the basis of a good library and this one is very well laid-out and beautifully appointed. A modern rotunda stands at the library’s core, naturally-lit and –ventilated, lined with thousands of reference books, part of the 800,000 tomes in the library’s possession (40% will be on display – up from 13% in the old building) on every floor and standing in oak display cases, waiting to be pored over and enjoyed. There’s an air of calm and tranquillity far removed from the areas of the library which will be somewhat less traditional.
There is, of course, all the extras that a modern library needs. There’s a 550-capacity theatre, recording and rehearsal spaces for local musicians, the BFI archive, 25 miles of archives and three million photographic images. There are rooftop gardens providing a panoramic view of the city and surrounding areas. There is also the Shakespeare Memorial Room, re-opened to the public and the library’s crowing glory.
The project cost £188 million and came in on time and under budget, a tribute to the Dutch architects Mecanoo and the much-maligned city council. It’s hoped that 3.5 million people a year will use the building and although that seems a bit ambitious I hope the figure is achieved. The new library might not appeal to traditionalists but Birmingham’s modern history shows that the city is at its best when it takes a bold gamble. The biggest library in Europe deserves to be the most popular.