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

Lost in Metropolis

By Lou Knight Weeks before the exhibit opened at Gas Hall, it was brought to life in this stunning trailer Metropolis: Reflections on modern city. Developed alongside the New Art Gallery in Walsall and Ikon Gallery, as part of the £1 million Art Fund International initiative, it showcased work by 25 contemporary artists. Curved partitions made flowing pathways where at any time you could view multiple pieces from various angles. The exhibit included projections, media installations, paintings, sculptures and photos from around the world.

Metropolis Collage

A blue mural featuring a photo of the Selfridges building marked the exhibit’s beginning; the voluptuous curves of silver discs unanimous with the city. Untitled by Barry McGee (2011) brought street art and geometric pattern together (see above left). With its bright colours and concave design it was a visual loudspeaker clamouring for attention. Studying its many components; the humorous and calligraphic sketches were diverse, as fascinating close up as the entire piece was impressive, stood at a distance.

Photos of the social divide existing at the outskirts of Paris comprised scenes of conflict in a set of framed photos. Improvised by Parisian youth and based on the artist’s direction, they were unsettling and yet vulnerable. Juxtaposed screens in an enclosed space, showed a woman blowing air and each time the video opposite sped up; the city streets racing by with each exhale. The simplicity of the idea and complexity of its timing made it compelling viewing.

Some of the other media projections included two giant screens set beside one another, capturing overlaid city views by night. The imagery in soft purples and inky hues blinked with lighthouses and outlines of Ferris wheels. A kaleidoscope of Las Vegas collapsed and expanded upon itself in sharp angles, making the neon landscape dance.

Simple design took metallic shades to great heights in a commentary on the digital age with Aleksandra Mir’s World Map of Social Networks (2009) (see above right). Stooped and bent figures painted in sharp repose spoke volumes of the vagaries of city life. A large painting of smoke curling upward made a hauntingly wistful image.

Audio taken of marches accompanied by black and white footage reminded us of how cities have suffered at human hands. Memories retold on the softly spoken stereo that you could sit beside invited and then drew out strong emotions if you lingered. In the next room, a 30 foot long mural of an Indian street scene brought the vibrance and cacophony of a morning market to life. Dayanita Singh’s photos from the Dream Villa sequence 2008 (see above centre) beautifully captured the rich depths of colour in urban back streets, by lamplight.

Despite its success, BMAG continues to provide free exhibit such as this to the public. The ambitious collection was a rare insight into how our cities operate and have evolved. Invaluable to students and admirers of art and history alike, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery is a zeitgeistian labyrinth that nourishes the creative spirit of all who enter. For current events at BMAG click here or follow them on Twitter @BM_AG

Writer Lou Knight can be contact on Twitter: @louknightweb