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Library of Birmingham by Mecanoo

Oriel Prizeman examines six recent libraries in the first of a new quarterly series on typology

Birmingham, most Victorian of British cities, is also most experienced in Library re-invention and awaits completion of its fourth central library in less than 150 years. Each incarnation has swung the pendulum of the subsequent brief. The first burnt down, Chamberlain’s replacement was deemed too small by 1938. Its post-war incarnation by John Madin opened in 1974 was designed to be clad in marble and surrounded by a water garden; the finish was dropped for economic reasons yet its dismal Midlands concrete patina most inspired its demise. Today Mecanoo’s BREEAM ‘excellent’-rated scheme promises a more animated vision for the city clad in aluminium petals and glass.

Mecanoo’s Francine Houben sees the breadth of the brief as unique in Europe. The building is clearly conceived in navigational, as opposed to iconic, terms and is thoughtfully adapted to its neighbours. On entering, direct views in all directions give clear lines of sight.

A third-floor terrace offers access to survey the city: what Houben calls its ‘soft hills’. Chamberlain’s Shakespeare Memorial Room was dismantled and re-assembled in Madin’s library and crowns the ninth floor of the new library. The core of the building is excavated by a spiralling series of offset cylindrical courts providing natural ventilation. In the middle of the building, the rotunda is surrounded by browsable books with reading rooms located at the periphery, close to the light.

This will not be a quiet library: an anticipated 10,000 visitors a day will be allowed to chat on escalators as they traverse the interconnected activities, including a subterranean, outside performance area overlooked by a circular balustrade at ground level. This hole in Centenary Square is pictured with a grand piano to arrest the attention of the passer-by. Asked whether Birmingham’s native Heavy Metal repertoire might also be revived in the space, Houben says simply: ‘Of course, why not? ‘

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