On a clear morning you can see forever. As long as forever is the tower blocks of Perry Barr being pushed into the centre by the surrounding hills, as long as forever is the take away detritus huddling against itself and the kerbs of Broad Street, as long as forever is taken to mean Alpha Tower not angular enough against the skyline.
You can also look inside.
- Jon B -
I wrote that one beautiful morning I spent on the roof of Birmingham Central Library, about how refreshing it was to use the structure to survey the city. That was unusual then, but it seems to be one of the main functions of the now one year-old Library of Birmingham: to climb on it and look away. Is that promoting reading and research as well as reflection?
- Howard -
An introduction, of sorts…
The Library of Birmingham opened on the 3rd September 2013 to much fanfare, and it even made it onto the telly – the actual telly, the tea time news from That London. A few months before that, and just metres away, Birmingham Central Library, its predecessor and once the largest municipal library in Europe closed to less fanfare and some awkward shuffling of feet. Two libraries, one old and one new.
One year on we look back at Birmingham’s attempt to reinvent the book and with it to start a new chapter in its own story. As that new library smell fades, as the homemade laminated signs appear, and as they finally send the work experience lad down Wickes to buy some steps, how have Brummies taken to their new library? What difference has this civic building made to life in the second city? And what will become of the spectre of its predecessor, the mighty brutalist Central Library of John Madin?
This essay features contributions from Paradise Circus writers Jon Bounds, Jon Hickman, and Danny Smith as well as grown up journalist Stuart Jeffries off of The Guardian.
- Stuart -
Four years earlier I’d been sceptical of the need for this new library. Was it really necessary, I asked then council leader Mike Whitby, to build a new central library at huge cost while the council was making binmen like my brother-in-law redundant? The answer came in the form of a lump of concrete. Brian Gambles, head of Birmingham libraries, showed me it in his office. It had fallen off the old, dearly loved brutalist monster of a ziggurat in which I spent many a happy hour, and whose appeal was only burnished further because Prince Charles had slagged it off. No, no, no Mr Gambles told me: “It’s ugly and unfit for purpose and would cost too much to properly renovate.” But, I thought then, maybe Gambles and Whitby were right: it needed to go, not least so that Birmingham had a big new shiny cultural asset in the form of a new library, the biggest of its kind in Europe, to support the 2013 UK City of Culture bid.
It didn’t work: as you remember the city lost out to Derry.
- Jon B -
I don’t think I’ve ever taken a book out of the Central Library in Birmingham, nor used one for reference. I’m not really a library person. I used to copy CDs from there like everybody did before MP3s, and I’ve wondered around looking at the shelves, breathing the mites and the refreshing book dust. I’ve stroked the static and brushed the peeling sticky tape from the yellowing computers by the escalators. I’ve been frustrated by trying to use the photocopiers, toying with the intense flaccidity of the coin reject button.
I’ve done pretty much everything it’s possible to do in a library. And, like a good boy, I’ve done it all quietly.
But the prime function, no. While I love words I have an old fashioned compunction to own them. Imagine being in love with a story and having to give it away to be intimate with others who maybe wouldn’t love it as wisely and well. A library is nothing but a fountainhead of potential heartbreak. And Central Library had the potential to be the worst.
- Danny -
The thing about anywhere you consider ‘home’ is that you never really start considering it that way until it’s not there any more.
Walking into Central Library on its last day I found it devoid of books, mostly partitioned off, infused with dour atmosphere and dotted with cheap furniture. It looked for all the world like a second world abortion clinic. And it felt like being punched in the back of the head.
But even then walking out of the doors—knowing it’ll be the last time—bought a lump to my throat the size of a child’s fist.
Being dyslexic meant that learning to read was difficult. But my mum not only more than prepared me for school, she sparked a love of reading that meant I quickly burnt through the children’s section of the local library. Then, because I was a regular in there, the adult section. So I was allowed on the bus to go to the other local libraries. And when I had inhaled the contents of those, my parents relented to my nagging and allowed me to go to the Central Library.
Of course I fell in love with it, big cavernous rooms filled with books on every subject. I would ride the escalators with armfuls of books piled higher than my head, find a corner with one of those municipal low comfy chairs of that pale green colours only people in the seventies thought looked good and read until I was asked to leave.
Later, when I started at Shenley Court school in the sixth form I found that because I hadn’t attended school there the ranks had closed. I dropped out: but rather than telling my parents I left for school every morning, caught the number 29 bus and stayed on as it flew by the school. I stayed on it for the hour and a half to town. And every day for a year I went to the Library, sat in the window of the second floor fiction section. I was in there so much the security guard stopped bothering asking my not to put my feet up.
Even to this day when I have nothing to do, something I’m finding rarer and rarer these days I admit, I would find myself drifting towards the library and browsing the same books I’ve seen countless time before.
I’ve travelled a lot, and moved around a bit more. And the more it happens the more home shifts from a specific place and it becomes little things: my favourite hoodie, my weirdly organised backpack, chai tea, or the hum of a bus engine. It gets to the point where it really isn’t something you think you need, miss or want. But looking back, I noticed wherever I’ve gone, one place I would always seek out is the city’s libraries. Unconsciously looking for a base, a home. Drawing solace in the stacks of books, furtive glances, and gentle quiet.
I’m not one to resist change and understand the building was expensive to run, but allow me a few moments.
Central Library was more than a building to me it was home.
- Jon B -
When the designs for the new library were released not everyone liked it: but by the opening day all resistance was quashed. The PR machine, working out of London, had presented a unified picture - one that shone with one colour much like the Library would on St George’s day, or St David’s day, or World Flange Fortnight.
The rumoured public relations spend was near that of the website — which was a cool £1M — and, if the official figure is closer to the truth, that £189,000 PR money around the opening was very well spent. Because not only did they bring the London media, they seemed to be able to neutralise local animosity. The most a Brummie would usually utter about Michelangelo’s David or the Sistine Chapel ceiling would be “s’alright” — but this building, this expensive, deliberately provocatively designed building, this flaccidly ‘iconic’ building, this publicly funded building had genuinely effusive praise poured onto it. Albeit it monotone accents that sound a bit Australian to foreigners. I have a theory, and it’s this: the PR project was so big and the spend so huge that there was nary a voice that hadn’t been involved in it somehow. Gig promoters were asked to curate gigs, film festivals were asked to show films in the new theatre, bloggers were given guided tours and crudités, even I was asked to do something at one of the opening events. It shut me up. For a bit.
But while I could find fault with the new Library, and eventually said so, that was not because I loved the old one and hated its replacement. I could easily love both and there is simply no reason to knock down one odd shaped building just because we built another.
- Danny -
I meet Ben in Paradise Forum for a coffee before our tour of the new Library of Birmingham. Paradise Forum is the bastardised version of the arcade that John Madin had planned to sit alongside Birmingham Central Library, so it felt weird, a slight betrayal – like going on your first date with someone new in the pub where your ex works. And looking back squinting in the sun, I swear I saw the old concrete bitch scowl at me.
The small reception around the back of the library is bright and sterile, yet to be scuffed and smudged into utilitarian invisibility. The other people there have nearly all picked up their security badges, me and Ben find ours. Where other people have Radio WM or Birmingham Post printed in the space marked for ‘occupation’ ours is left blank. Ben wants to write something in ours. We put ‘Brutalist’: it seems fitting. The rest of the crowd are varied, some recognisable faces from local media, some young-looking ones from the BBC who are obviously sending the cubs to see if there’s anything worth noting other than the usual piece to camera that’ll slip nicely before the sport and weather.
Upstairs now in one of the conference rooms. We’re given coffee and time to curse that neither of us have the ability to small talk with strangers. The rooms that we’re being entertained in are corporate boxes, meeting rooms that could be anywhere: a training centre in Holland, an interview cell in a new-build police station, or the break room on the Starship Bland. Except for the view. Not that the skyline of Birmingham is particularly striking or memorable, but when seen through the bars of the trellis that surrounds the building the view is transformed into somewhere else – a maths savant’s doodle hovering just out of view like a probability force field.
In the next room we’re given a slide show by the architect, which yes, is as exciting as that sounds. So much so that the guy in front of me, for no reasons I can make out, gives a large audible sigh knocking her from her flow momentarily and ruining my concentration with a fit of the giggles made worse for trying to suppress them. This broke, what I thought was, a fairly convincing act of being an engaged growed-up. Before the architect Ian Wood, deputy something something for the city council explains his vision for the library. Wood talks about the building representing what we want Birmingham to be known for: in the ’70s Spaghetti Junction told the world we were a place to drive through, the ’90s the Bull Ring that we were a shopping destination, so in the millennium this new building should tell the world we’re a centre of learning and inclusion. These are very good things and its good that some of our civil servants are thinking big picture like this. Even if the details are a little hazy.
Our tour starts on the sub-ground floors, the childrens’ space runs into the music section that surrounds what looks like from the inside a glass tube, which is actually an open-air space that is visible from the walk way to Centenary Square. It’s impressive. Like any architectural build in the last few years everything is modular. so the glass doors can be open and or shut and the bookcases shifted around to make an audience area. This is all well and good but I find features like this are rarely used. Nobody in the day-to-day running of things wants to make these decisions because, frankly, most people have other things to than worry about maximising the lights dynamics or increasing the sustainably envelope or whatever other nonsense that occupies architects’ hours that no-one else thinks about ever. I was too busy enjoying the existence of the ’60s podchairs everywhere and the blue neon trim.
The real breathtaking stuff happens as you ascend to through the overlapping ‘rotunda space’ that makes up the inside cavity of the building. Upstairs the reference section is displayed on black circular bookshelves that look like something out of a movie set (and I predict will be used quite often as a set by local filmmakers). The bookcases are accessed by black staircases that circle around. Some you have access to, some are locked, these overlap maze like. This floor has tables to work at and a workshelf and stools that once again let you peer through the trellis at the city. There are also BFI viewing booths where the entire library of the BFI film archive will be available but featuring curated local content.
The Shakespeare room is at the top, accessible to the public via a complicated system of lifts and corridors. I get the impression that the way is purposely made to be oblique and trail past some of the offices, to weed out those who want to use it from people just sticking their noses in. The room and the top balcony attached, I predict, after the original rush of people exploring will become one of Birmingham’s best kept open secrets—visited by people brave enough to not let the constant itch of ‘am I supposed to be in this bit’ keep them away.
But I have to say the highlight, and the things I am most looking forward to having access to, are the balconies that are easily my favourite thing about the library. Sometimes to get perspective you need to get high. Drugs or height. Both’ll work, not always but they’re worth a go (not at the same time though) and it’s rare in cities that we’re given access to high spaces. But these work. That couple of extra feet away from the World can make all the difference. And looking out from the balcony of the new library, my city didn’t seem so bad, so oppressive. That in itself is as valid and empowering as the sea of information inside.
- Stuart -
When the new Library of Birmingham opened last year, I watched Tom Dyckhoff eulogise it on the BBC2’s Culture Show. Perhaps because I was steeled for disappointment (the artists’ impressions of the exterior made it look a gaudy mistake, like the baby building block black hole of the nearby Copthorne Hotel only more clamorous – how can metalwork look actively childish, Dutch architects Mecanoo, eh?) after a few minutes I found myself welling up. The inside looked so beautiful, the interior of a secular cathedral, the fulfillment of Joseph Chamberlain’s civic gospel, the built proof that even in austerity the egalitarian dream of spreading knowledge freely and equally throughout society could be realised. To camera, Dyckhoff hailed the library as a concept and Birmingham for reviving it as a funky destination for the city’s many demographics. I couldn’t see many books behind him as he hailed the building, but let’s not spoil the story.
- Jon H -
You can be fashionably late to a party – arriving after the nominal start, when everyone is warmed up and in the swing of things, lubricated by the richest pickings from the drinks table, kitchen counter, or bath full of ice. But you can also arrive unfashionably late, when people are tiring, feeling jaded, and all that’s left to drink is a two year old bottle of Bailey’s.
I’m unfashionably late to the Library of Birmingham. Like a pub worker who had to clean down then jump in a taxi to catch the last hurrah of the night, I come to the LoB three weeks later, making a metaphorical 2am appearance at its launch party. The bunting and the zany have all gone. The spectacles that caught the lenses of the media and the instagrammers have slunk off, leaving the library naked with only its truth to present to me.
The foyer has the feel of an airport terminal, with desks for the checking-in (and out), escalators that promise to pull you up into the business end of things and a bespoke unbranded eatery that offers generic options at air-side prices. The only way is up, and I’m pulled into the feature rotunda that I’ve heard so much about. It reminds me of Waterstones in the Pavilions centre, the area which was sort of modelled to make it feel like a library. I feel these two design conceits clash – the bookshop like a library, the library like a bookshop – and I’m lost for a moment to make sense of where I am, what this is for. I’m jostled by a group taking photographs. I move on to find a place where I can work.
I found that Central Library was a wonderful place to read, study and write; Central’s work area, with its bashed up desks, was unambiguous and surprisingly user friendly. You had a chair, a light, a plug and you were insulated from the outside world – buried in the centre of walls of books, hidden from the light and the view. The LoB works the other way, throwing you out from its centre to sit in brightly lit study areas in gallery windows that throw attention not onto the job in hand but onto Birmingham. I’m Goldilocks now, trying to find a seat: this area is too hot, this private study room has no clear booking rules, but this area, at the back, is just right. I look out onto tower blocks and concrete car parks and I get a glimpse of Paradise Circus. The LoB is a reaction to those things, a rejection of that vision of a city and yet in truth she is hemmed in by them. For now.
Another thing, there’s an edge here that I’m not used to. Phones go off, bodies stiffen. There are sighs, people obviously relocating to remove themselves from disruptions. I see an argument developing about a booked computer even though others are available. There’s clearly an old library crowd (am I amongst them?) and a new one, and they are still finding ways to accommodate one another. All of them are learning the building, and the building is learning all of them. Soon the building will have to react to them. Somewhere a laminator is waiting to make some signs (set in Comic Sans) to stick up around the place, to clarify functions and to formalise the new codes of the new building, the ones an architect and a designer can’t plan for. The LoB will be all the better for that. It needs a few scratches, knocks and dents, it needs to become less popular, less of a destination, before it can do its job
- Danny -
Fans of vague marketing talk and transparent attempts to make the public feel as they’re in control really should head over to paradisecircus.co.uk and marvel at the property developments Argent.
Apparently Argent and the Birmingham City Council have an ‘exclusivity agreement’ and if that brings to mind the result of an awkward conversation from a couple of Uni friends that have been occasionally drunkenly ending up in bed together, then you wouldn’t be far wrong. Argent and The Council have promised not to see other people, but on the promise that Argent phone their mates and check they don’t mind. The ‘mates’ in this analogy are us and the phone call they have promised to make is the website, its feedback forms and a small presentation they made in Paradise Forum.
I went to this ‘public exhibition’ which consisted of all the different pages of that website on four-foot banner posters and collection of smarmy PR drones, I believe the collective noun of which is a ‘toss’. Not so much an exhibition as a talking down to. These guys talked in non-committal terms about improving the ‘flow’ of pedestrian traffic from Victoria Square to what’s behind it. Now, considering what’s behind it is the library they had to build because of the redevelopment, the exhibition centres and Broad Street, the question is do we really want to improve traffic? That is if its mainly going to consist of bored business tourists looking for lap dancing clubs and red faced Broad Street louts spewing WKD vomit like sprinklers? Or should we actually dig deep trenches filled with flaming tar and post irritable machine gunners every fifteen yards instead?
OK I’m being facetious, but if improved pedestrian flow is one of the major concerns — do we really think that having to walk through an enclosed shopping area is such a barrier? Are blank-faced pastel people drinking coffee in a way no English person actually does going encourage this flow? And could we not just put up better signs?
This stock photo ridden example is the most patronising and indicative of the vagueness of said drones. Hilariously suggesting that shops cafés or bars could move in, exactly like Argent’s other development, Brindleyplace. Only this time all the major bar, café and restaurant brands are already represented in Birmingham, and in this economic climate nobody is opening those sorts of businesses any more – just look at Broad Street, where nearly every other unit is a gutted smeared window, a tombstone to another dream dying.
After a while of looking at the site you notice how the entire text of its prefaced with words like ‘possible’ and ‘potential’ Is this because they so really want to avoid giving away the dirty reality? They’ve already decided what’s going to be done, and nothing will change that.
Not even protesting.
I was born in 79 so I grew up with Thatcher smashing the unions and images of policemen beating up picket lines, by the time I was a teenager student protest had become a bad cliché, and as an adult saw the biggest civil protest this country has ever saw roundly ignored as we were taken to war. So sure, email your opinion if it’ll make you feel better and part of the process, that’s what it’s there for.
In fact that’s the only reason it is there.
- Jon H -
New Street Station is currently in the process of being ‘redone’. In truth they are building a brand new mainline station inside the old one, which is still running. I manage to hold two opinions on this: one is that it’s a bloody impressive feat, the other is that I’d like to consistently know where the exit tunnels will bring me out when I leave my platform. It’s basically like the Hogwarts of train stations right now.
Finally an escalator spits me out thirty metres from where it spat me out last week, and I’m off into town to visit the Library of Birmingham, which has just turned one. Directly outside New Street there is major engineering work afoot as they try to bring the Metro all the way down to the mainline, thus shaving five minutes off the escape plans of any Black Country kids looking to run off to London. Up onto New Street itself and that is being dug up too. There is so much digging and knocking down going on here I’m surprised that someone hasn’t redubbed the city core the Redevelopment Quarter (our city masters love a good quarter, we have enough of them to make four or five Manchesters).
I’m walking with my eyes very much open today. I’ve just come through the Piccadilly Arcade, an Edwardian shopping precinct with a few quirky independent retailers inside and a simply amazing muraled ceiling that they did in the 1980s (go there and don’t forget to look up). I don’t know if the Piccadilly is ‘iconic’ of anything much but it’s charming. New Street itself has felt lost for a while in terms of function: it’s not a ‘high street’ of much note as proper shopping has been pushed out into the malls on the other side of New Street Station, it’s a road you walk down on your way to places. Even Cashino on New Street has closed. I don’t know how the promise of a new mixed use development, on the site of the old library, is supposed to help that.
Architecturally though New Street is alright, I think, in as much as I can comment on such things. It seems to wear its history. No doubt it’s lost some aspects of it but some old and new are allowed to mix. On some of the side streets, like Bennett’s Hill there are some quite grand old things: an old Midland Bank that’s all pillars, a Philpotts with a vaulted facade. New Street is crowned at one end by Victoria Square which leads onto Chamberlain Square. The two civic spaces are well used and they contain the Town Hall, The Council House, Museum & Art Gallery and Birmingham Central Library.
Birmingham Central Library’s primary use now is as an advertising hoarding for the Paradise Circus redevelopment: the entrance is postered over with information boards telling me the story of a mixed use development that will provide an ‘enhanced setting for historic buildings’ through the provision of a hotel, ‘Grade A Offices’, a car park and ‘Shops, Bars, Cafés & Restaurants’. Part of the enhancement of the setting for the Town Hall seems to be to box it in a little more, by building down its Western flank. What these plans don’t tell you is that another parcel of land, on the Southern end of the Paradise Circus redevelopment is about to get stoved in and rebuilt too, displacing Snobs nightclub to provide more mixed use redevelopments.
The proposed buildings that replace the Central Library complex will, the developer’s website says offer ‘major improvements to pedestrian routes, road layout and public space’. The artists impression show more buildings than before on the same plot of land, in roughly the same orientation. Architecturally it’s all quite geometric. The building going on the Library’s own plot seems to float on stilts, providing an outdoor space filled with Starbucks-green alfresco dining umbrellas.
I walk into Paradise Forum, and on to the Library of Birmingham, to wish it happy birthday.
- Jon B -
Maybe I shouldn’t care about what’s happening to Central Library: but I love the building, I love the size and the shape, I love the angles and the implausibility. I love the incongruity and placement most of all. Wherever you stand it’s not possible to get straight on to its parallel lines. So whatever your view the building flows away from you, meeting at a horizontal distance, pointing toward the future and the past.
I like that it’s Central, in the actual usable centre of the city rather than somewhere as a ‘destination’. I like that it sits on top of a modern motte, steps and coiling ramps leading you inextricability into its mouth. For a building to fit into its surroundings doesn’t mean it has to blend in, just to create interesting and beautiful contrasts—the straightness that was forever peaking out from the overblown revivalism was refreshing. It allowed modernity to poke into the heavy set city, and to thrust into the sky. It was different and, unlike the swirl cladded replacement: truly iconic. That is it was an icon, one that reflected the town and acted as a code for it. That takes years and it’s something that shouldn’t be thrown away.
If a city doesn’t have the confidence to love something unfashionable then it’s doomed to look like a local radio DJ picking up on the trends just five minutes after they’ve appeared in the Sunday Times magazine. Yet, we in Birmingham have had for years the supposed guardians of the local culture stepping over each other to Gok Wan the city centre to death: to hide anything non-conventional and to spend as much money as possible on imitations of things other places have. As long as they have approval and a designer stamp.
Oh, and if the destruction and shifting away from ‘prime office space’ of a public amenity opens up potential for money, then all the better it seems. Don’t be fooled that anyone who’s had anything to do with the decision to destroy this building has thought for one second about architecture or beauty. They’ve thought only of how modern (rather than modernist) looks better as a backdrop for photographs, and how many more opportunities for canapés and wine there are with new buildings than there are with the upkeep and use of current ones.
The Council House will look worse without the Library as a backdrop and the inhabitants of the Council House look will look worse when we examine them in the harsh glare of their actions. They, like me, will regret its passing—whether they ever went in or not.
- Jon H -
Iconic buildings, once you’ve seen them, are just buildings.
I’ll never again see the Library of Birmingham for the first time: that’s a one time deal, the money shot; as I enter Centenary Square the Library of Birmingham has already receded into the milieu but, as I said, I’m walking with my eyes wide open today. I look up at the new building as I approach, I really look. It’s quite interesting. The wrought iron facade, the building’s defining flourish, is attractive but actually it’s just decoration on top of something hard and modernist. Soften your eyes and beneath the veneer of swirly trellis there are clean lines and angles that change, sharpen, and deepen, as you approach them. It’s not actually dissimilar to the old library.
Inside it still feels new, but it also feels settled. I still can’t shake the airport terminal feel when I arrive. I head to the café. The menu is the usual espresso based standard for a modern café, but someone has tried to bring an independent coffee shop vibe to the place. A poster with a hand drawn cupcake tells me that it is ‘cake o’clock’. I look closer. The cupcake is, I think, clip art, and the poster sits within a brand managed template. The guy who serves me wouldn’t look out of place in a slightly hipper coffee shop except his beard is a little too short, his piercings and tattoos a little too modest. Everything is just the safe side of edgy. It’s very much how a café in a library should be, in a way. Except there is not a silver tea pot in sight and my drink comes in a large disposable cup. The overall effect of the café is like a geography teacher trying to be cool, and that feels just right for something in a council building.
Around the café are the first of many laminated signs I’ll see on this journey: ‘Please note these facilities are for library café customers only’. I wonder if it’s acceptable to run a knitting circle in here, like they used to do in the old library’s café. There were certainly no knitters today. Perhaps they can meet here so long as they buy a cup of tea.
I get a text message from Danny ‘Are you in the library now? Go to the fiction section. Diagonally across from the escalator is a small corridor leading to the toilets. Go to the mens.’ It’s just the latest in a long line of slightly kinky things Dan has asked me to do but I feel it behoves me to carry out his request.
In August the Library of Birmingham hosted an event called Public Library Futures in a global digital world. The two day conference gave librarians from across Britain ‘an opportunity to discuss the latest developments in the public library world in the largest and most iconic public library in Europe’. It also gave Brian Gambles, Birmingham’s library boss, the chance to curate an impression of the Library of Birmingham before a jury of his peers; playing host to such an event allowed the Library of Birmingham to imprint itself as the template for big public libraries for the next decade. During his presentation to the conference, Gambles reportedly said that the building was designed for ‘serendipity’, and part of that meant that it was designed to be ‘hard to get to where you want to go’. We asked Birmingham City Council to clarify Brian Gambles’s comments at the Public Library Futures conference, they said that it has been “designed to deliberately encourage exploration and discovery, rather than taking people around the space in the most simple, obvious or direct way, as a traditional library might.”
What does it mean to design a building for serendipity? I took Danny’s pretty clear directions to the toilet that we’ve taken to calling the Whitby Room. Could I find a specific lavatory in the Library of Birmingham? Easily? And what else would I find on the way?
Firstly, there were a lot of ad hoc laminated signs, and they made my heart sing. There were other signs of a real, living building too. For example under the first set of escalators, next to a display about the non-Birmingham produced, badly accented hit BBC TV show Peaky Blinders, a mild mannered janitor seemed to have constructed an ad hoc storage cupboard for chairs and assorted furniture. I rode that escalator up in search of the fiction section.
When I last came up this escalator the landing areas were filled with tourists, taking photographs. A year on, everyone seems much more business like, focussed on getting at books and knowledge. As a I take the escalator’s second flight I see a group of teenagers (they have the look of university freshers, new to town). The freshers pull out their camera phones and start to document the space; still a year on this building begs to be photographed, its cylindrical core being made of nothing but good sides. I also spot an officious group in suits. They’re not photographing but they are definitely auditing the space, taking mental notes. They look like they’re measuring up, to see if their furniture would fit. Who could they be? Perhaps they’re librarians from that conference a few weeks ago, lost in a serendipitous tour of the building? Maybe they’ve seen the fiction section? I could ask them but that would be to cheat my own journey into knowledge and to fight serendipity.
I get off at each floor, and try to work out where I am, and where the fiction section might be. The orientation signs don’t offer much help. Floors are called things like ‘Discovery’ and ‘Knowledge’, whilst sections of those floors are named ‘Brainbox’ and ‘Discovery Terrace’. I’m desperate to see something a little less obtuse, like a Dewey Decimal classmark. In the end I just assume that each level might be ‘the fiction section’ and strike out for a men’s toilet. I don’t find anything of note, really, except that one of the disabled access cubicles has a flooded floor and one of the toilet roll dispensers has unravelled its contents all over the stall. These can’t be the Whitby Room, but serendipity has brought me to them nonetheless.
Serendipity leads me next onto a roof terrace that overlooks the square and the bottom of Broad Street. The terrace carries on around the side of the building, facing out onto Baskerville House so I figure I should explore there. There’s a huge herb garden here. Idly I wonder: who is using all of these herbs? Can I pick them? Some of the doors are roped off, its not clear why, so I carry on around until I find a way back in.
I’ve not found the fiction section nor the must-see toilet and sadly it’s time for me to go, so I wind my way down to street level. It’s early in the day but the building is busy. Most tables are taken, their occupants head down in family history research, school or university work, general reading, and I guess doing some ‘Discovery’ of ‘Knowledge’ (as the signage has told them to within each section).
Down in the main atrium again there’s another level beneath me and I look down onto it and realise that ‘Book Browse’ (which I’ve seen on every orientation board) is Library of the Future speak for ‘fiction section’ or ‘lending library’. Dan’s toilet, The Whitby Room, is close.
Down into the lower levels, diagonally across, there’s a darkened passageway leading to… toilets! I’m here. I come to the gents. The door is incredibly heavy, like it’s fighting me, pushing me away: “No! Not in here!”. Finally it yields and I go to step in but there’s a sink right on top of the doorway. I go to squeeze past it and find myself banging into a hand drier on the opposite wall. My bag sets the drier off, and the door is starting to swing its weight back onto me, pushing me back out into the corridor. I burst out laughing. This toilet is ridiculous. I message Danny to let him know.
‘It’s such a fuck up of design. They must have literally said ‘fuck it, no one will come to this one anyway.’ And left it.’ he replies.
Now I realise that this is starting to sound like a review of lavatories and potentially you might be thinking ‘hang on, is he beefing about this new library because of the bogs?’. The thing is, I’m quite pleased to find these rough edges; laminated signs, temporary furniture stores, clumsy attempts to be cool and idiosyncratic toilets are all signs of life for me, signs that this is a real library. I’m starting to like this place.
- Stuart -
What do I feel about the Library of Birmingham now? I still can’t quite believe so many shelves are empty. Charlie boy said that the old library looked like a place where books were incinerated rather than borrowed – just maybe that’s what they’re doing in the basement of the new Library of Birmingham to be in line with on-trend minimalist aesthetic parameters. Still, I like the architectural theatre of the interior, the Shakespeare room brilliantly rebuilt on the top floor, the gardens and the views from the balconies. But couldn’t they have just done up the old one? Even in 2010 when I got back to that London and the Guardian’s offices, the paper’s then architecture critic Jonathan Glancey reckoned that the old central library needed just a bit of TLC, that the costs of renovation need not have been prohibitive. It had been built to last longer than 40 years he claimed and, in any case, it had an aesthetic purity and brutalist swagger that made it miles better than its replacement.
Perhaps, despite my tears, Birmingham made a big expensive mistake in building its vainglorious new library? It’s hard to be sure: the new building is locally liked so far as I can judge, and when I went there recently, the Guardian photographer adored it because it was easy to photograph, easy to use as a symbol of 21st century Birmingham strutting its stuff. And maybe he’s right. Or maybe, it’s all fur coat and no knickers. That would be so Birmingham.
- Howard -
A conclusion of sorts…
“I know you love one person so why can’t you, love two?” not my words, Birmingham, the words of Stephen Patrick Morrissey in his 1991 single My Love Life. Are you so forward looking, so focused on your city motto, that you can’t enjoy more than one imposing building at a time?