Ten storeys high, with gold cladding and neon elevators, Mecanoo's Library of Birmingham is a confident riposte to those who think this building type should go quietly. But does a library lose something when it starts to shout?
The Library of Birmingham is a library. Not an idea store, a mediatheque, an e-centre, a community data hub – or any other grating neologism that was invented in the past decade to try to update the image of a seemingly endangered typology. The architect, Francine Houben of Dutch practice Mecanoo, has carefully written "Library of Birmingham" in her own script on the front of the building to make sure the people of Birmingham don't forget.
And they could be forgiven if they did. Public libraries have been some of the earliest and most high-profile victims of the vicious cuts to public spending that the government has imposed on local councils. They are easy pickings for the bean counters – simply turning off the lights and locking the doors makes an instant saving. The Library Campaign estimates that by 2016 more than 1,000 will have closed. While the Library of Birmingham predicts that it will receive 10,000 visitors a day, it has been reported that all of the other remaining libraries in Birmingham is under review.
Mecanoo has delivered its £188m, 35,000sq m library on time and, according to all at the opening, under budget. Funding was approved in 2007 and, despite the ensuing economic crisis, the project went ahead. The library sits on Centenary Square, on the site of an old asphalt car park, wedged between the neoclassical Baskerville House built in 1938 by T Cecil Howitt and the Birmingham Rep theatre, designed by Graham Winteringham in the 1970s.
Set apart from this triumvirate of civic buildings is the ugly concrete-block mess of the ICC exhibition centre, a sort of Midlands experiment in high-tech gone wrong. And in the corner, standing with forlorn dignity, is the inverted concrete ziggurat of John Madin's 1974 Central Library – an architectural dead man walking. This building was turned down for listing in 2009, despite numerous recommendations by English Heritage, and will be demolished and supplanted by a set of commercial buildings that will line the route to Centenary Square. The new library, dubbed a "people's palace" by its architect, is the centrepiece of this strange plaza.
The ten-storey building rises above its immediate neighbours like a stack of outsized books, its volumes expanding and receding. The elements are glazed or clad in silver and gold and the whole building is covered in stainless-steel filigree. The 5,357 interlocking circles were inspired by the gas towers and tradition of craft and jewellery-making in the city, yet as testament to the decline of industry in the UK, they were manufactured in Munich. When pressed, Houben leaves its meaning ambiguous: "The story is what you want it to be." This artisanal chainmail diminishes the impact of the gold, but livens up what would have been a fairly tawdry exterior. It is not awful, but not pleasant either – the building is clad in materials that were fashionable at the height of the lottery boom.
Inside, the building begins to make itself, and its purpose, clearer. The glass-plinth ground floor is entered beneath an eight-metre cantilever; from here, visitors disperse to the library's various functions. The building is united by a spiralling atrium that is criss-crossed by white elevators lit neon blue. It is not a soaring space; it only gradually reveals the sky as the net of elevators diminishes.
Most visitors will be making their way to the lower levels where the lending library, children's section and media library are held. Descending through a number of mezzanine levels painted yellow, the building rolls out beneath Centenary Square like a jaundiced cavern. At the end is a courtyard surrounded by glass that opens up to the square and frames the building looming above – a great space for musical performance and an extension to the children's library.
The book rotunda sits at the heart of the new library
Moving upwards along the neon elevators, the building becomes more composed. The procession through the spaces is flanked by books – there are 400,000 of them on display. They become rarer and more valuable as you travel upwards – and the architecture reflects this. As visitors emerge into the circular reference libraries, with their dark shelving and balconies, the atmosphere becomes more scholarly. This is the most dramatic moment in the building, as the sky becomes visible for the first time. Here the building bulges the most, shifting its edges beyond its footprint and over the square below. Visitors are pushed to the margins of the space, to sit among the intricate shadows cast by the steel cladding, protecting the sober interior from the chaos of the city outside. "This is my favourite moment in the building," says Houben, looking out at the city beyond. "I could sit here all day and watch the light change."
The building provides space for all forms of study. On the outer reaches of the upper floors are the quieter, more controlled public record rooms and the Boulton and Watt Archive, which chronicles the industrial history of the UK. Of course, the building is filled with hundreds of wi-fi hotspots and over 200 plug-in stations for computers, but the digital equipment is placed respectfully among the old school media.
The shifting volumes of the building also create space for two large roof terraces that spill out on the third and seventh floors. Tended by volunteers, they are planted with a variety of fruit, vegetables and herbs, the intention being to educate people about gardening and attract a different audience to the library.
Crowning the building is the Shakespeare Memorial Room, a reading room that dates back to 1882 and has been dismantled and rebuilt in three different locations since then. This wood-clad room, an architectural cuckoo in a metal nest, is a symbol of aspiration – placing the Midlands' most famous son atop everything – and of resilience. This strange stage set has survived fires, demolitions and war. It is a surprising, and surreal, conclusion to the building.
"I knew libraries and theatres," says Houben. "But I did not know Birmingham." On visits to Britain's second city, she began to notice architectural "incidents". At the outset, she wrote: "For sure, we do not want to design a building that is just another 'incident'. We want to make a building that brings coherence to the urban network of Birmingham."
Tracing the skyline you can see "incidents" all over the place – the ICC; the catastrophic Cube by Make; Future Systems' Selfridges, which looks like it is impatiently waiting for the rest of the city to join it in the future; Demetri Porphyrios's red-brick palazzo building that stands over the canal at Brindley Place and plants pseudo-historic Italy into this perplexing mix. Identifying the need for coherence, and not another incident, Houben sought inspiration in the fabric of the city: "Red bricks, blue bricks, steel and the craftsmanship of industry." How she used these influences is more of a moot point.
As a whole, this building lacks a subtlety or nuance that makes the best libraries so special. At the library completed for the Delft University of Technology by Mecanoo in 1997, the vast hall provides private spaces and moments, perfect for people to sit and read. This may sound obvious, but in Birmingham it feels as if there are places for books and media to sit, and places for people to sit, but nowhere special or intimate for the two to come together. There is a lot of space throughout the building, but compared with the best libraries – Bolles + Wilson's City Library in Münster, with its deep windowsills to sit and read on, or the British Library, with its nooks and corners – the Library of Birmingham feels more impersonal.
It could be argued that it needs to be robust to cope with the expected volume of visitors. In many ways, this is a library that reflects contemporary consumer culture: the fixtures and fittings are familiar from shopping malls, its circulation patterns are obvious, a sequence of breakout spaces for performance and the like will encourage the public in who don't want to read, as will the free wi-fi. And why not? It is at the heart of the city centre, it should appear accessible and welcoming. And while the library may appear ungainly and overdressed, this belies how comfortably it holds its functions.
Yet despite all of this, despite the massive book collection and shouty facade, the Library of Birmingham lacks an element to make it truly special. Which is sad, but not fatal. It is expected, according to the engineer Buro Happold, to have a lifespan of around 60 years. By then, many new incidents will have appeared on Birmingham's skyline, and the Shakespeare Memorial Room will no doubt be on the move again.
The gardens will be looked after by a team of volunteers