Midlands & East Anglia

Mecanoo Architects read between the lines

The Library of Birmingham

A thrilling project to create one of the largest public libraries in Europe is underway in Birmingham.

The new Library of Birmingham will replace the existing Birmingham Central Library, in the process setting a new standard for the 21st century and transforming the public perception of the city.

Birmingham Central Library opened in 1974 and houses an extremely valuable collection of archives, photography and rare printed books. However, the environmental conditions of the building are inherently unsuitable and have caused several of the irreplaceable collections to deteriorate. The new library will therefore provide a new home for the collections, safeguarding them for future generations and enabling improved access through purpose-built galleries and search rooms.

The Library of Birmingham

Located on Centenary Square between Baskerville House and the Birmingham Reparatory Theatre, the new library stands in the middle of the city’s cultural quarter. Meanwhile, the present library occupies a strategically important site which has been earmarked for development and expansion as part of Birmingham’s ‘Big City Plan’. It is hoped that the library project will both aid in the regeneration of the city and act as a landmark development in its own right.

The £193 million scheme was approved by Birmingham City Council in October 2007 and construction began in January 2010. Funding for the project has primarily been provided by the city council, whilst further funding will be raised from land sale, commercial sponsorship and private philanthropy.

Designed by Dutch-based architectural practice Mecanoo, the library comprises ten floors and covers 31,000 square metres of space. The development boasts a spacious entrance and foyer with mezzanine, a lower ground level with terraces, four further public levels and two outdoor garden terraces. In addition, there are two cafes on the first and third floors respectively, along with conference space.

The Library of Birmingham

Two of the levels will be occupied by a ‘golden box’ of secure archive storage with a new exhibition space that will allow public access to the collections for the first time. The golden box will be formed from gold coloured anodised aluminium panels and the metallic finish will change hue depending on the weather conditions.

A rooftop rotunda will house the Shakespeare Memorial Room and a viewing gallery, where visitors will be able to look down at the city below. In addition, a large outdoor amphitheatre will provide a performance space for music, drama, poetry reading and storytelling.

The concrete frame structure also features a unique frieze that covers the entirety of the library. Each section of the cladding is formed from 5.4m diameter black rings and 1.8m diameter silver rings, which according to architects Mecanoo is ‘inspired by the gasometers, tunnels, canals and viaducts which fuelled Birmingham’s industrial growth’.

Francine Houben, Mecanoo, said: “The circular pattern of the metal framework honours the city’s industrial heritage, in particular the craftsmanship in metal work. For me, the circles symbolise unity and relate well to the purpose of the metal frieze, unifying the different functions within the building with one gesture and expressing openness to the public.”

One of the most interesting features of the development is the inclusion of large external terraces, which will provide visitors with outdoor reading areas. This will allow the public to engage with both the library and the surrounding area, subsequently establishing the building within the community.

Brian Gambles, Project Director, explained:

“One of the key messages that I gave to the design team was that I wanted the library to work very closely and effectively with the public realm. This is an extremely important public sector project and one of the largest cultural developments in this country, if not Europe.

“The project has not been without its challenges. We are working on a very restricted site in terms of size and accessibility and as a result the construction team has had to be imaginative in their efforts. Fortunately the Repertory Theatre and the library have some services in common and we have been able to integrate the two buildings. In addition, the underground space has been used effectively and natural light can now flow into this space as a result of the creative use of heights.

“Because we are in a very busy location in the city centre, Carillion has had to manage a large volume of vehicles that have brought materials to the site. Whilst this has resulted in partial road closure, the effects of construction have been minimised by close interaction with the local residents and businesses. It was very important that the construction team behaved as a considerate builder and I am pleased to say that Carillion have performed this role brilliantly.

“It gives me great pride to report that the project is currently both on programme and under budget. This is an extremely important development for the city of Birmingham and will allow us to transform the image of the region through the promotion of culture. Although the area already celebrates a large number of visitors, it is hoped that the new library will bring even more people to this wonderful city.”

The new Library of Birmingham is scheduled for completion in April 2013.

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