Ambiguous symbolism: Birmingham Library by mecanoo architecten
Text: Emilia Margaretha, Peter Popp
Birmingham's new library takes up the motif of the circle. The façade, which is covered in aluminum rings, has been likened by critics to the ornamentation associated with the Louis Vuitton brand. On the other hand, many residents of Birmingham like the idea of the rings, which remind them of the city's industrial past. The architects themselves prefer to point out the logic of the independently functioning interior spaces. The central motif of the rotunda accompanies visitors on their vertical journey through the various levels of an exciting spatial composition.
Architects: mecanoo architecten, Delft
Location: 309 Broad Street, Birmingham, UK
The “Global City with a Local Heart” campaign aims to give Birmingham, England's second-biggest city, a new image by 2026. The completion of the new library building is an important milestone on this road. The Dutch architecture studio mecanoo has filled the gab between the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, built in the 1970s, and the 1930s-era Baskerville House, both prominently located on Centenary Square in the centre of the city. Only a few metres away, the old Central Library, built in 1974, still stands. This is slated for demolition as part of the facelift planned for the Paradise Circus district.
From the outside, the new construction comprises three offset stacked cubes in gold and black. The striking façade covering of interlinking aluminum rings of various sizes represents homage both to the city's industrial past and its venerable jewellery-making tradition. The reflections and shadows created by weather conditions and time of day give the reading rooms a particular atmosphere.
On the way to the main entrance, visitors cross the square in front of the building, which is home to a large, circular courtyard. Accessible from the library's basement, this amphitheatre provides a space for concerts and readings. The open stage is meant to direct the attention of passers-by to the building's multifaceted interior.
The main foyer, which leads directly to the neighbouring Repertory Theatre as well as the library, is home to exhibition spaces, an auditorium, restaurants and cafés. The heart of the library houses the book rotunda, where more than 400,000 books nestled into circular shelving arrangements await readers. The main reading rooms have been placed around the rotunda.
Other rotundas of various sizes are set off or above each other and connected via lifts and escalators which dissect the space diagonally. The rotundas form an atrium; natural light penetrates laterally through the reading rooms and from above through the entire building, flooding the lofty entrance hall.
The roof of the building features a golden rotunda, now home to the Victorian-era Shakespeare Memorial. This wood-clad reading room from the 19th century was part of Birmingham’s first Central Library. It was disassembled in 1974, when the original building was torn down, and has now occupied a new position here.
The building's area, which measures 35,000 m², makes it Europe's largest library. As a centre of learning, information and culture, it connects people of all ages, cultures and backgrounds. This exemplary project, already popularly known as the 'people's palace', will have no trouble attracting the expected three million visitors annually.
To sum up: the circle is a definitive and predictable geometric shape. But it is hardly easy to gain a deeper understanding of the circle's multiplicity of meaning in cultural history. Because the perfect shape of the circle is universally understood, its ultimate meaning in any given context is open to interpretation. It is no surprise that some critics, and many Brummies, have come to their own interpretations of the library's façade. Furthermore, the unusual effect created by the façade on the interior space is perceptible: as soon as visitors enter the bright reading rooms, it becomes apparent that the ring-based façade ornamentation creates a filter that communicates with its surroundings. The result is an inimitable atmosphere sure to quiet any sceptical voices.
Related article: Circles and shadows - Birmingham Library by mecanoo architecten
Read our detailled report in DETAIL 4/2014 Stairs, Ramps, Lifts.