The redevelopment of the city reaches another key milestone this month with the opening of the new Library of Birmingham. Editor Jon Card gained a preview of the new site, as well as the adjoining Repertory Theatre. He wonders whether extrovert performance and quiet bookishness can really be fused
The creation of the new Library of Birmingham has been a controversial affair. During a time of weakened government budgets, spending £188m on a new place to read books seems like an extravagance. The design of the new building has also divided opinion, with many people, including current council leader Sir Albert Bore, being less than enthusiastic. Then there is the demolition of the old Central Library, which will stand uninhabited for a year or more to come. There is still a fringe of people who wish for the John Madin-designed structure to be saved for other purposes. However, it is now set to be demolished in late 2014 and a new ‘Paradise’ will be built in its place.
The new Library, which connects to a refurbished and expanded Repertory Theatre, is a major part of the plan to create a reinvigorated Birmingham city centre. It is also a brand new public space, which contains far more than books. Meanwhile the Rep, which has been closed for over two years, also reopens, resuming work as a full-working theatre and launch pad for national tours. If successful, this dual development will alter perceptions of the city and get people talking about Birmingham for the right reasons. A month before opening, I took a tour around both buildings to see if the plan was coming together.
The Library’s ground floor is a wide, open and airy space, filled with light from the large windows all around it. At the time of writing, workmen and library staff were busily making adjustments and moving items around. You quickly get a sense that this is and has been an epic project. It was also conceived and constructed with remarkable speed, when compared to most British constructions. Architects Mecanoo only gained the brief in 2008 and, five years later, the building is fully operational. Since May this year, 800,000 books and files containing three million images have been moved from the old site to the new. This has resulted in 1,100 crates being hefted across every day.
We hop into a lift and head up to the first floor, which contains a variety of different rooms, meeting spaces, a recording studio and ‘innovation spaces’. Although the outside of the building is square and blocky, the inside contains many circular spaces and rounded edges. The idea is to give the interior more flow, allowing visitors to move around easily and engage in what the architects call a ‘dynamic journey’.
The escalators take us up to floor two, which possesses a classic library feel, with tall black bookcases housing many collections. There are high ceilings and the acoustics are designed to prevent noise travelling far, enabling conversations while conserving quiet places for people to study and read in private.
But it is on the third floor where things become really interesting. Here visitors get to walk onto the ‘discovery terrace’, a wide, open balcony filled with greenery. There’s a cafe and bar here, too, and down below is the amphitheatre, where we should expect open air performances. The terrace also gives you a chance to admire more closely the lattice motifs of the Library’s exterior. The black and white circles are to represent the city’s industrial past, as well as its creative jewellery talent.
Unlike most libraries, the archives are in the upper floors, not locked away in the basement. On level four there is a search area, where access to original manuscripts can be obtained. There is also a Willy Wonka style glass elevator, which takes you up to the seventh floor. Here, there are some very pleasant offices for staff, and you will find the ‘secret garden’, which allows a 360 degree walk around the building, taking in views of the city and its greener surroundings.
But there is one further surprise. Inside the gold hat on the top floor is a room which belonged to the original Victorian library and is now in its third home. The old Shakespearean reading room has been retained, complete with its old wooden panels and decorative glass roof.
One of the more intriguing concepts of the new Library is how it has become fused with performing arts. The ground floor connects directly to the new Rep, while the basement area leads to the Amphitheatre. There is also a new, 300-seat theatre, adding to the Rep’s 140 and 820 seat auditoriums. Rep theatre director Stuart Rogers believes this is all very good news for his organisation. “The Rep’s decision to join the project was two-fold. We wanted a new theatre, which would enable us to do a greater breadth of productions, as many plays are too big or too small for our existing theatres. But also, being connected to the new library means we will get far more footfall.”
The Rep has been significantly expanded and modified, with improved production spaces, offices and refurbishment throughout. The old exterior walls of the building have been retained where possible, and much needed air conditioning has been added, creating a more pleasant environment. There’s also a new brasserie and bar, which is open throughout the week, all of which should bring more people into the confines of the theatre.
It’s difficult not to be impressed by the hard work and the ambition of those involved in this major project. It is also heartening to see so much faith in our public spaces on display. Combining a library with performance art is a novel concept, and it will be intriguing to see how it fares. Ultimately, public spaces are about how people interact there and the organisations that run them. Over the next few months, these questions will begin to be answered.