Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Library of Birmingham

 
On September 3rd 2013 the new Library of Birmingham was finally opened. To me it seemed as if the building of this library had lasted forever, but according to Wikipedia it didn't start until 2010, so I guess my forever is quite short! Oh, well. The architecture of this new library intrigued me from day one, so when I visited Birmingham earlier this month, of course the finished library was on my sight seeing list!
This public library in the city centre of Birmingham is supposed to be the largest public library in the United Kingdom, the largest public cultural space in Europe and the largest regional library in Europe. Not bad. The architect behind it is the Dutch Francine Houben. She is a founding partner and the creative director of Mecanoo Architecten in The Netherlands, the architecture firm behind this postmodern, high-tech building. Structural engineer is Buro Happold.
The architecture of this building is really something. It is 60 metres high and has 11 floors, 1 under ground and 10 over ground, the top floor being floor 9 that houses the Shakespeare Memorial Room. On the outside the building is made up of four rectangular volumes that are staggered to create various canopies and terraces. It has a sunken amphitheatre, rooftop gardens and a shimmering facade. As the exterior of the building is a reference to the city's jewellery quarter, a filigree pattern of interlocking metal rings has been added over the golden, silver and glass facades.
You enter the library from Centenary Square on Broad Street and on the ground floor you have access to The Rep (Birmingham Repertory Theatre), The Box (a booking office) and of course the library itself. On the ground floor you'll find the reception, the library shop, the studio theatre and the Library Café. The café is fairly pricey, so if you're really hungry, I'd recommend to eat elsewhere or bring your own food, as you're allowed to eat it in the library lounge areas. You'll also find a buggy park, a digital gallery and a book browsing area on the ground floor.
From the ground floor you'll be able to reach the lower floor where the children's library and the music library are situated. This level slopes out beneath Centenary Square, where a sunken circular courtyard that functions as an amphitheatre can be found.
Back on the ground floor you have access to the blue lifts (that didn't work when I was there), the stairs and the escalators to the first floor, which is called "Business, Learning and Health", because of its meeting rooms, brainbox, soundbox etc. The second floor is called "Knowledge", as this is where you'll find study rooms, a contemplation room and the impressive book rotunda. The library is said to contain 5 million items, but I'm not sure how many of them are books. I expect less than half. It's still an awful lot of books and Heaven to an author like myself!
The book rotunda goes all the way up to the third floor, called the "Discovery" floor, where there are study rooms, the BFI Mediatheque, the Discovery Gallery and a library café open in peak times only. Walking through the first, second and third floor, you realise that the metal rings on the building cast patterns of shadows onto the floors of the reading rooms, and as the seasons change, it is going to look different at different times of the year. Wifi is available throughout the building, by the way.
From the third floor you have access to the Discovery Terrace. This is an elevated garden where you can sit and read a book or just enjoy the view over Birmingham. The planting on the terrace includes herbs, fruit and vegetables and the beds are adorned with wooden animals and vegetables, making it fun for the kids too.
The fourth floor is called "Archives, Heritage & Photography" and here you'll find the Heritage Lounge and the Wolfson Centre for archival Research. It is also here that you'll find the glass lift to Floor 7. Both floor 5 and floor 6 are non-public, so you have to take the stairs or the glass lift to get to the seventh floor. At least when the blue lift isn't working… Anyway, suffering from height anxiety like I do, it is rather nerve-wracking to use the glass lift, but I did it anyway, as my health won't allow me to walk up three flights of stairs.
On the seventh floor, you'll find The Secret Garden. This garden terrace is more densely planted that the Discovery Terrace and it is supposed to be a secluded, quiet place, high above the city streets below. It was high up, alright, so I tried to keep close to the building as it was a bit too far up for me, but there were lovely views from there.
The eight floor is non-public, but the ninth floor (the golden oval thingy on top of the building) houses the Shakespeare Memorial Room. I love Shakespeare, so of course I had to see it, but with the blue lift not working, there was only one way to get there: using the stairs. There was a funny sign encouraging people to use the stairs, but it's not easy when you're disabled! Oh well, I couldn't just come back another day when the lift was working, so I walked the two flights of stairs up and I wasn't disappointed.
The Shakespeare Memorial Room was originally designed in 1882 by John Henry Chamberlain and has now been reconstructed on the top floor of the Library of Birmingham. The room is really beautiful with woodwork by noted woodcarver Mr. Barfield and brass and metal work most likely crafted by Hardmans.
The Shakespeare Memorial Room contains Britain’s most important Shakespeare collection, and one of the two most important Shakespeare collections in the world; the other being held by the Folger Shakespeare Library. The collection contains 43,000 books including rare items such as a copy of the First Folio 1623, copies of the four earliest Folio editions and over seventy editions of separate plays printed before 1709. There are also significant collections from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, a near complete collection of Collected Works, significant numbers of adaptations, anthologies and individual editions.
The Shakespeare collection is not the only collection in the Library of Birmingham. The library has a number of other nationally and internationally significant collections, including the Boulton and Watt archives, the Bournville Village Trust Archive, the Charles Parker Archive, the Parker collection of children's books, the Wingate Bett transport ticket collection, the Warwickshire photographic survey, the British Institute of Organ Studies archive and the Railway and Canal Historical Society Library. Apart from the Shakespeare Memorial Room, you'll also find a Skyline Viewpoint on the ninth floor, but to me it wasn't as interesting as the Shakespeare collection!
If you are visiting The Library of Birmingham, be sure to swing by during evenings as well. The library looks amazing with its flashing lights in white, yellow, green, blue, purple and red. Breathtaking! I'm sure I'll be back the next time I'm in Birmingham!
The address of the library is: Centenary Square, Broad Street, Birmingham B1 2ND, England.

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