A New Chapter

By Lou Knight

Anyone visiting the city will have seen the work being done on the 60 metre construction, since it began in October 2007. What surprised me most when I approached the new library of Birmingham was how it appeared to have always been stood there. Nestled between Baskerville House and seamlessly connected by a foyer to the Repertory Theatre, in its foreground, shallow steps wrap around an amphitheatre that leads into the basement section of the new library. The overlapping disc façade – a topic of controversy amongst locals during construction – stands proud; catching the light even on a rainy day and silently nodding to the industrial history of the city. Beyond the revolving door and bank of glass windows, concrete pillars reach upward and gleaming white floors squeak underfoot.

On the 9th floor, the sky view allows an impressive view of the city, even on a rainy and overcast day. Housed behind it, within the golden round of the building’s highest point, the memorial room encourages hushed whispers. Despite its modern surroundings, the room still carries the scent of old oak and well-worn pages. Designed by Chamberlain in the Gothic/Elizabethan style, original oak cabinets with floral inlays stretch 4 metres high. The stained glass and coving is reconstructed beautifully and compliments plush red carpet which bears a replica of the library’s modern exterior. First, third and fourth folio editions of Shakespeare’s works are home here, watched by the large white bust of the bard himself.

The winding paths and wildflower borders of the Secret Garden are vibrant with colour and reach around 3 sides of the building, to enjoy further views. Heading downwards from this point there are smoked glass partitions on each floor where computer, meeting and music rooms are connected by a round glass elevator tunnelling down through the centre. Curved columns of book shelves store 1 million books, with archives, map rooms and wi-fi access co-existing in this modern and traditional space.

The mezzanine just above the café is much darker than much of the space on the floors above and like the basement, where pod chairs and oversized bean bags encourage children to linger, offers a cosier setting. There is thought and care in the café’s offerings – from the focus on natural, fresh ingredients, to the friendly staff and disposable wooden cutlery. Cakes, sandwiches, wraps, soft drinks and a wide range of coffees and teas are reasonably priced considering this is the city centre. Both gardens offer outside seating for those that have brought food and drink on their travels.

Social gatherings, school excursions, pit stop meetings and introductions were occurring all around me, in different languages, as I explored the space. Beyond the impact and innovation of the building, that is what I best admired. As a nod to our past, present and future it flows seamlessly between all three in design and function. As a place for people to gain knowledge, convey ideas and meet new people it becomes more than a library. Part monument to knowledge, part post-modernist art, this is a local treasure for a global village.

Photos and words by Lou Knight, writer.  Contact Lou on Twitter: @louknightweb