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Littlehampton, England

A New Library for Birmingham

Artists impression of the new Library of Birmingham.

Having looked fondly on previous visits to Birmingham Central Library, it was with much excitement that I returned again on Saturday, hoping to find some reference material for a forthcoming post.

As I walked from the NIA (past the ‘Olympian Entrance’, a remnant of the city’s failed bid for 1992 Olympic Games), along the canal and over the bridge to the ICC, I was struck by the unimaginative architecture of Brindley Place, much it a product of the previous decade. Indeed, I’ve often questioned why Britain’s second city lacks any identifiable skyline to speak off — the British Telecom Tower and Rotunda the only distinguishable buildings amongst a slew of high-rise offices and residential tower blocks awaiting eventual demolition.

On reaching Centenary Square, my path was obstructed by a large construction area, where Birmingham’s next great architectural hope, the Library of Birmingham is being built. Designed by Dutch architects Mecanoo Architecten, and scheduled for completion in 2013, this building is far from unremarkable.

A transparent glass building, wrapped in a delicate metal filigree, it will occupy a space between the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (The REP), a concrete clad building designed in 1964, and Baskerville House, a limestone building designed in 1936. These buildings will then inform the space immediately in front of them, dividing Centenary Square into three public spaces; one for monuments (its centrepiece being the Hall of Memory), one for culture (with a large sunken patio area) and one for outside entertainment.

Artists impression of the new Library of Birmingham in relation to Centenary Square.

Birmingham Central Library

Whilst I admire the bravery and ambition of this project, I’m sure the same level of excitement and aspiration surrounded the design of the current library, opened in 1974. Unlike its replacement, this Brutalist style building was designed by a local architect, John Madin and with the Rotunda and Alpha Tower, remains one of Birmingham’s key Modernist buildings.

Birmingham Central Library, as it looks today. Photograph: Tony Hiskett

I have to confess that I have a soft spot for this building, though it’s often derided by the citizens of Birmingham.

Were it not for its unfortunate position, where it obstructs the flow of pedestrian traffic from Centenary Square to Chamberlain Square, I’d love to see it refurbished and given a new role in the city. How wonderful to see it set amongst the water gardens seen in the original plans, which were designed to soften the edges of this imposing mass of concrete. Perhaps too, the atrium could be returned to its original design, removed of the bars and fast food restaurants that currently suffocate this space. Instead, it faces demolition once the new library opens.

Inside Birmingham Central Library, as it was in 1974.

Will we talking about demolishing the new library in 40 years time, bemoaning its messy, ill-defined exterior? Following a string of other big building projects in the city, none of which seem to give the city any architectural identity, it seems likely.

  • Andy

    Hi Paul,

    I can’t remember if I’ve engaged you on Birmingham’s architecture before, but if not, there’s a reason to now!

    I never liked the old library until people started pointing out the history, what it should have been and when I actually stopped and studied the building in more detail.

    I’ve always believed it divides the city, and until fairly recently had been unaware that it once had been an open space - something which I think should - had the whole scheme been realised, been something fantastic. The fact remains though, it’s location is poor, and ultimately will underwrite the fate of the building.

    I think like you, I’m disappointed at the way some of Birmingham’s recent architecture seems to fail to endure, but that said - there are some gems amongst a lot of trash. I also like that we are prepared to innovate, and am not so crushingly bound by the idea we should preserve everything.

    For me, Brindley Place actually isn’t that undesirable. It’s one of the few new well-services, pleasant open and social spaces in Brum, if not particularly adventurous - I’d far more easily criticise the dull buildings of the late 80s and early 90s that line the tow path between The Mailbox and the ICC.

    The reality is that there are more building projects going on in now Birmingham than in a long time, and the skyline is definitely going upwards. I hope that the integrity of new works like the new library and the planned buildings do go on to shape how Birmingham is perceived and hopefully if they will reflect on us well.

    Unlike some, I actually like the facets of The Cube, and you know, we might not get everything right first time, but the more care and effort put into experimental architecture the better. Even if it’s not always successful, it does indicate that people here are willing to give new ideas the benefit of the doubt. And the reality is that for all the outstanding, wonderful stuff we could build, it will always be affected by what surrounds it - and in many cases - that will continue detract until many older, less attractive buildings, get the attention they deserve.