We couldn’t have thought of two better people to send to the new Library of Birmingham preview tours than Ben (his take here) and Handsome Devil Danny. Were we right? You decide…
Meeting Ben for coffee in Paradise Forum before we go on a tour of the new library of Birmingham 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 just 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 now 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 BCC explains his vision for the library he 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 come of our civil servants are thinking big picture like this. Even if the details are a little hazy.
But he finished his talk by calling the library “A Peoples’ Palace” – I put it to you, good people of Birmingham, that we make a pact, right now, right here, that by reading this you’re agreeing to inflict very serious physical harm on anyone that uses that phrase – even jokingly – quickly and without mercy. ARE WE AGREED ON THAT? GOOD then I’ll carry on.
“That was hilarious.” I caught one of photographers, Lee’s, eye.
“What was?” thinking he saw the big sigh.
“Watching you fidget about in there, you couldn’t have looked more bored if you tried.”
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 three overlapping ‘rotunda space’ that make sup 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 inevitable used quite often as a set for any locally made ventures). 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, use your head FFS) 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.