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Mecanoo's Central Library in Birmingham

Beyond the flamboyance of its facade, Birmingham’s ambitious new public library is a model of enlightened collaboration between architect and client

The raised pedestrian acropolis that defines Birmingham’s civic centre has finally opened its latest addition: the new central library.

Mecanoo’s decorative and optimistic contribution joins the company of a Greek temple, an inverted ziggurat (for now), a recently scrubbed concrete theatre and a shopping complex focused around a paved area that is determined to maintain its status as the ‘Agora of the Midlands’.

Architect Francine Houben describes her contribution as ‘an ode to the circle’ and marks its arrival with a large round puncture through the foreground offering passers-by cruise-ship type views down to activities taking place in a new and inspiring underworld. Before them stands a mountain of glass boxes laced in protruding silver and gold intersecting bangles, set diagrams whose bounding geometry is seemingly undetermined. Internally the floorplates of the nine-storey space are excavated in a meandering vertical path like a giant version of the perforated pages of the children’s book, The Hungry Caterpillar.

In contrast to its neighbours, both spatially and decoratively the building appears to cherish exploration and deny constraints. It promises to deliver a dynamic and playful new browsing environment to young and old alike which re-defines the British public library today. However, as a major public project delivered in a period of austerity, the process as a whole draws inevitable focus to stated notions of worthiness and responsibility.

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Mecanoo’s central library in Birmingham has a complex and striking facade

The decision to proceed with Mecanoo’s £188.8m building dived under the finishing line of financial prosperity by a hair’s breadth in 2008. Its opening, very importantly on time and under its £193m budget, has long been anticipated to take place in a significantly altered economic environment. This is Birmingham’s fourth central library to be built in less than 150 years. It arrives at the expense of the late John Madin’s 1974 neighbouring predecessor, which is now destined for erasure.

The scale and public significance of this project make it important to note the driving forces behind its inception as well as the design response. The legacy of reiteration highlights the changing role and scope of the architect in the context of public policy. Issues of novelty and also measures of sustainability have been central to the brief but does this repeated re-casting set a new inevitability in motion?

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Local band Black Sabbath’s 1973 lyrics ‘Spiral city architect − I build, you pay’ have caused much debate on the internet, yet we may venture a literal interpretation of Ozzy Osbourne’s words. Many bemoaned Labour minister Margaret Hodge’s 1998 refusal to list Madin’s 1974 library. Running against considerable pressure from English Heritage, the Twentieth Century Society and others, her statement served to condemn the building and also to enable the cogs of a new brief to be set in motion.

Politicians have an affinity for visions ostensibly set to transform the civic centre at the heart of England and libraries are benign subjects. Just prior to his re-emergence as Labour Prime Minister in a hung parliament in 1974, Harold Wilson stated of Madin’s building: ‘The opening of this library is an act of faith in meeting the needs and creating the demand of the future.’ In parallel on his visit to the new library on 12 October 2012, the Conservative Prime Minister of the coalition government, David Cameron, praised Mecanoo and council: ‘Not only is what you are doing in Birmingham extraordinary, but the way you are doing it is truly innovative.’ Indeed, the brief had required a modern image for the 21st century.

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The architects are undeniably different but are their design responses so distinct? Indeed, is it likely that the cycle of praise and condemnation will be stopped? Will the use of measurable performance deliverables resolve such pendulum swings of perception?

Although Madin’s building was hailed in 1976 by the architect/librarian assessors of the Library Association as an exemplar which ‘must, in future, form a reference point to which others responsible for new libraries should turn’, in a BBC documentary A Vision of Britain, Prince Charles famously redefined it in 1988 as ‘a place where books are incinerated, not kept’. His statement almost certainly underpins Hodge’s confidence in contradicting English Heritage.

Yet disturbingly, the 1974 review in The Architects’ Journal might well be confused with one of the new building: ‘It is perhaps the use of escalators that keys the building’s success … one glides through the succession of volumes smoothly, sleekly.

The impression is of one space flowing into the next within the depth of the huge structure, from the bright bustle of the lending library to the solid quiet of the study areas. Experience of the interior is therefore complete in a way that must be rare in this age. Few buildings can be so magically free of irritatingly endless series of wire-glass fire doors, to be met everywhere in public buildings’ (22 May 1974).

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The scope of the architect’s role has changed radically since the 1970s. Madin’s remit was on a completely different scale from that of Mecanoo. His scheme was part of a much larger programme for the civic centre in which he claimed: ‘Complete segregation of pedestrians from traffic has been achieved.’ In fact, his design team report of 1973 demonstrates that they were instrumental in condemning the preceding 1882 library themselves: ‘The Old Central Library has to be demolished to make way for the new road construction.’

In contrast to Madin, who acted as both city architect and lead consultant on a traditional contract, Mecanoo (who won their role in competition) have operated under a Design and Build contract managed by Capita Symonds’ authors of the business case. The council had the insight to novate the architects and Patrick Arends, project architect who has been living in the UK through the works, has pledged to remain for a further year as issues of inhabitation are resolved.

There has been a conscious effort made to ‘close the gap’ between architectural intention and the needs of the user. One way of achieving this is to place an emphasis on quantifiable performance. Birmingham City Council demanded that the new library be BREEAM ‘Excellent’. The measurability of its energy use, as with most new buildings, has had a big impact on Buro Happold’s engineering of the environment.

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The intersecting internal voids allow the stack effect of air movement throughout the building to be used to heat and cool efficiently; however, other features make less sense. The quantity of 220mm thick sealed units required to surround the entire nine-storey building and the somewhat inhuman scale of the modification of daylight with the external circles and full-height internal blinds raise an eyebrow.

Most extraordinary of all is the beautiful biodiverse brown roof planting on the terraces − no thistles at all. However, you wonder whether the flora and fauna, particularly on the 10th floor terrace, really have any scope for enjoyment as they bounce towards the vertiginous prospect of the glass balustrade. Surely only in Britain could it be considered meaningful to mount two wooden nesting boxes on posts up there, as if it were the Blue Peter Garden. Surely the birds of Brum would rather make their nests snuggled into the hollow of a golden ring lower down?

The visual identity of the facade was clearly critical to the new brief. Despite what must have been considerable pressure to keep costs under control, it is the facade that appears to have escaped budgetary restraint. Madin’s remorseless concrete facade stimulated most criticism.

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Ironically, however, this surface was unintentional. In fact, the building was meant to be clad in white marble and surrounded by fountains, perhaps more neo-Babylonian than Brutalist, more in tune with the Californian hit of the same year, Midnight at the Oasis than Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. Ultimately it brings Birmingham closer to a decorative aspiration it evidently still retains. Indeed, tragically for the late Madin, Brian Gambles, chief executive at the Library of Birmingham Development Trust, maintains that had his more decorative facade been implemented, the entire programme would probably never have got under way. The comprehension of this error has informed the current team. Working against a monthly report to test the cost of cancelling the project, they have been careful to deliver what they promised.

The spectacle of the facade’s intersecting aluminium rings rose to the Council’s aim for a new, eye-catching, bright and distracting object in the square. Francine Houben cites gasometers as the inspiration for its hoops. However, somewhere in the deep subconscious of someone involved there may be a memory of a visit to Midland, Michigan, AKA Chemical City, home of Dow Chemical. It lies three hours east of Detroit across a featureless landscape and was home to Alden B Dow, son of the company founder, an experimental architect who had studied under Frank Lloyd Wright.

He enjoyed a prolific career building every other big house in his father’s town as well as churches, and notably an arts centre. The intersecting rings held on projecting arms that adorn its 1968 facade are undeniably similar to those of Birmingham City Library. The slim chance that a European architect without a deep interest in the manufacture of polyurethane or entrapped in a local tour might have found it implies that the vision may well have been coincidental but it does determine that it is not novel.

The internal spatial arrangement of Birmingham City Library allows inter-level views, and a comfortable form of promenade suitable to the enormous scale of the spaces. The archival facilities and research rooms are of a very high standard and novel in their provision of abundant natural light and views out.

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The allocation of areas and architectural elements reflects a looseness of approach that is unusual and perhaps hints at Mecanoo’s diplomatic skill. Specific zones and areas are relaxed in their definition, the unpainted concrete structural columns are sized and positioned to support the loads they bear but are allowed to vary in a seemingly unselfconscious way.

At points the architect’s acceptance of structural expedience is regrettable. For example, the incorporation of a series of floor-to-ceiling arches which march through two storeys of one side of the building lend no particular benefit to the inhabitation or quality of the space although they undoubtedly help bearing the load of the closed access stacks above. Partitions are at times awkwardly fitted between the concrete forms crunching their corners to marry differing systems.

Overall, however, the apparently scattered logic is made amenable by well-conceived furniture arrangements and implied means of occupation. Library designers have traditionally played with the symbolic potential of the stair or travelator that lifts the user from obscurity to enlightenment. Although none yet competes with Michelangelo’s room full of steps up to the Laurentian Library in Florence, which he designed almost 500 years ago, the notion remains alive and healthy.

In Birmingham City Library the length and pace of its detached and divergent escalators inspire self-conscious exploration and fantastic people-watching potential rather like those by Paul Andreu at Charles de Gaulle Airport (1964-74). By suggesting new destinations for individual accomplishment they are highly apt for library navigation made glamorous. With UV under lights and hand resting on a moving rubber belt, the library user is made visible, perhaps even slightly tanned, active, poised and stylish.

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Unfortunately, the entire experience of the space through its public approach is yet to be encountered properly as it is blocked by a librarian’s timber fort installation which has nothing to do the with neon glory above. Mecanoo’s renowned sectional drawing shows how the lower and mezzanine levels merge with the entrance space before funnelling customers off to the more formalised upper levels. Francine Houben mildly shrugs this off but it must be a disappointment, albeit temporary.

In general, the generosity of the interior space, its vast meandering void and variety of internal destinations, demonstrate the delivery of a significant gift to the British public.

Very few enormous warm, dry urban interiors outside London are offered without an implied commercial transaction and this one now challenges the British Library in its presentation of open access on a grand scale. Of course the two are incomparable in terms of role and content and the architects could not be more different in their approach, yet a stake has been reclaimed.

In many respects the greatest doubts that arise from the new building are related to the power of novelty and the meaning of sustainability in the context of rebuilding. However, the role of the architect, flexible in form and function and relationship with the client, demonstrates a departure from tradition which may be the practice we
should really admire and recognise as new.

FACT FILE

Architect: Mecanoo Architects
Location: Birmingham, England



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