I had the opportunity to visit Birmingham’s new £189million library last Friday.From the onset, having had brief glimpses of the building emerging during the construction period, I’ve had very real reservations about its external appearance… perhaps this has something to do with a certain amount of resentment that the new building has sadly replaced the Central Library, opened in 1974 (and the fact that I had worked for The John Madin Design Group in the very early 1970s at the time the Practice was designing that building)?
The external appearance is a series of interlocking metal rings set around gold cladding and vast walls of glass… for me, the following three competing images come to mind:
a) “well, we had a whole load of Olympic rings left over after last year and it seemed such a shame to throw them away…”
b) as above, but substitute “Christmas street decorations” for “Olympic rings”…
c) melted/spun sugar decorations applied to buildings.
I’ve subsequently seen its external appearance described as a “decorative box”, “three mattresses with a roll of duct tape stuck on the top” and The Observer’s Rowan Moore reckons its appearance “the goldy-glittery exterior is a bit Vegas, but it stays this side of trashiness. The interior of atrium and escalators could be like a shopping mall, but it isn't” - so I’m clearly not the only one who remains a little sceptical… although I’m afraid I DO find the exterior rather “tacky”.
Architect Francine Houben, of Dutch studio Mecanoo, cites “gasometers” as the inspiration for its hoops and claims that “the 5,357 circles on the outside frieze of the building reflect the city's industrial heritage - the craftsmanship, the factories, the canals, the jewellery quarter…”.
Frankly, I’m not convinced and feel that such descriptions are contrived and arbitrary, at best.
Having said all this, I WAS impressed by the building’s interior. Atriums, escalators and landscaped terraces are key features. The spaces are exciting and colourful… and it certainly encourages visitors to explore (and the external hooped decorations work much better when viewed from the inside!).
Photo: Building frontage viewed from the basement lightwell.
PS: With the anticipated huge number of visitors, the passenger lifts (providing access to the roof terraces and the Shakespeare Memorial Library) seem inadequate in terms of both number and size.