Wondering stars

In an old episode of BBC science programme The Infinite Monkey Cage the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson described how as a young boy growing up in New York City he never saw the stars in the night sky; in a city, when you look up you just see more city. When he eventually saw the wonder of the stars it was in the New York planetarium. That was where he found his love of science, and that was how his life’s work in cosmology began.

Tyson is quite the poetic scientist, and I found his story captivating. The city exists, he seems to suggest, only between its highest penthouses and the ground below them — all the sky above is lost.

Of course New York is a very different cityscape to Birmingham, but there’s something in what he tells us about wonder, about knowledge and enquiry, that is relevant to us.

Our skyline thrusts ever upwards, fuelled by the speculative construction of inner city apartments. Meanwhile the social housing of the past is being brought back to the ground. The clear message here is that the vista of the city is a reward for success, in the starkest capitalist terms. This tells us that only winners are now allowed to look down upon the mighty work of Birmingham. Perhaps they are able to see the sky from up there too. Perhaps they can wonder at the wandering stars; for them they are reserved.

What Birmingham lacks in height it makes up for in light. The modern city, even a modestly risen one like ours, still beats back at the night sky with a haze of halogen. Part of the deal with cities is that, though they may rob you of nature’s riches, they give back to you what you need for an enriched life. They do this through civic works, as New York did for Tyson when it gave him the wonder of stars through the planetarium.

In BMAG today they exhibit a model of one of many master plans for what is now Centenary Square. The classical architecture of Baskerville House and the Hall of Memory are mirrored by sympathetically designed buildings. The Hall of Memory’s twin is a planetarium. In that square today you will find the new Library of Birmingham.

A library, like a planetarium, is a place of wonders, a place to enrich our lives and light the sparks of promise in us all. A library can unlock the mysteries of the sky above us, too.

The deal is the city takes the natural world from us but gives it back to us in some way so we too can wander through it and wonder; the building itself isn’t the wondrous thing.

The library at night is lit up like a galaxy of the stars it obliterates from view. Tonight perhaps it’s lit in a regal purple? Look upon it and despair and wonder what’s inside.

Satirical Cartoon: saving the new library

A cabinet meeting in the Council House – there’s a sign above the desk that tells us this. The table is filled with nondescript aging men in suits.

We are looking over one man’s shoulder at a clipboard with a list on it in a suitable handwriting font.

The list is headed ‘Library Partnership/Begging Shortlist’ and says:

British Library – they don’t know who we are (crossed out)

Genting – already have NEC Arena (crossed out)

Central Library – turns out we had it knocked down (crossed out)

Wickes – Plus point:: ladders? (this is also underlined in red pen)

Doug Ellis – he does like his name on things

Malala – you get about a million for the Nobel prize (may have spent on sweets)

Davenports – closed?

Cockburn’s – ??

The caption reads ‘Any port in a storm’.

Satirical Cartoon: 2014 in review

A very wide fish-eye lens ‘shot’ of Centenary Square and Chamberlain Square – this is a big New Year double page spread, ‘a year in Kerslake review’ if you will, a bonus for all fans of our satirical cartoons.

Outside the new library there is a group of people protesting with ‘Save the Library’ placards, they are chanting ‘No to the cuts’. Malala Yousafzai is holding her Nobel prize, which has her name and what it is on the plaque, and leading the protest.

A fat man who may be Eric Pickles (wearing a badge that announces who he is, and carrying a big pair of scissors labeled ‘cuts’) is hiding in a Trojan wheelie bin, and being pushed inside the council house by someone with a Ukip rosette. They both wear flat caps with razor blades in.

Outside the old library there is a group of people protesting with ‘Save the Library’ placards. A man swings a wrecking ball. He has a bunch of papers sticking out of his pocket – they say ‘Kerslake Review: Council are crap’ on them.

One man with a box brownie camera is trying to film everything, spinning around. He has a tabard that identifies him as working for City TV. Another man in a hat that says ‘Press’ is not watching anything but is taking notes with a pencil on a pad, while reading Paradise Circus on a laptop.

A man in a suit stands in the centre of the cartoon, talking to another man in a suit. The one man has a ‘Leader of the Council’ badge, he says: “I haven’t seen so many people since the Police and Crime Commissioner election.”

The caption reads: “Forward.”

Satirical cartoon: the cuts, the cuts

A man in a suit with a badge on that says ‘Sir Albert Bore, Leader of the Council’ is at the enquiries desk of the Library of Birmingham – you can tell that because of the sign.

Further behind the counter are empty shelves, marked ‘Sports And Lesiure’, ‘Accoutancy’, ‘Children’s Services’ and so on.

A fat bloke – Eric Pickles – is in the background with a wheelbarrow of books and cash and football and food.

Sir Albert asks the librarian, “have you any books on standing up to the Tory government?”

The caption reads “Shhhh.”

It’s 2am and there’s only Baileys left

You can be fashionably late to a party – arriving after the nominal start, when everyone is warmed up and in the swing of things, lubricated by the richest pickings from the drinks table, kitchen counter, or bath full of ice. But you can also arrive unfashionably late, when people are tiring, feeling jaded, and all that’s left to drink is a two year old bottle of Bailey’s.

I’m unfashionably late to the Library of Birmingham. Like a pub worker who had to clean down then jump in a taxi to catch the last hurrah of the night, I come to the LoB three weeks later, making a metaphorical 2am appearance at its launch party. The bunting and the zany have all gone. The spectacles that caught the lenses of the media and the instagrammers have slunk off, leaving the library naked with only its truth to present to me.

The foyer has the feel of an airport terminal, with desks for the checking-in (and out), escalators that promise to pull you up into the business end of things and a bespoke unbranded eatery that offers generic options at air-side prices. The only way is up, and I’m pulled into the feature rotunda that I’ve heard so much about. It reminds me of Waterstones in the Pavilions centre, the area which was sort of modelled to make it feel like a library. I feel these two design conceits clash – the bookshop like a library, the library like a bookshop – and I’m lost for a moment to make sense of where I am, what this is for. I’m jostled by a group taking photographs. I move on to find a place where I can work.

I found that Central Library was a wonderful place to read, study and write; Central’s work area, with its bashed up desks, was unambiguous and surprisingly user friendly. You had a chair, a light, a plug and you were insulated from the outside world – buried in the centre of walls of books, hidden from the light and the view. The LoB works the other way, throwing you out from its centre to sit in brightly lit study areas in gallery windows that throw attention not onto the job in hand but onto Birmingham. I’m Goldilocks now, trying to find a seat: this area is too hot, this private study room has no clear booking rules, but this area, at the back, is just right. I look out onto tower blocks and concrete car parks and I get a glimpse of Paradise Circus. The LoB is a reaction to those things, a rejection of that vision of a city and yet in truth she is hemmed in by them. For now.

Another thing, there’s an edge here that I’m not used to. Phones go off, bodies stiffen. There are sighs, people obviously relocating to remove themselves from disruptions. I see an argument developing about a booked computer even though others are available. There’s clearly an old library crowd (am I amongst them?) and a new one, and they are still finding ways to accommodate one another. All of them are learning the building, and the building is learning all of them. Soon the building will have to react to them. Somewhere a laminator is waiting to make some signs (set in Comic Sans) to stick up around the place, to clarify functions and to formalise the new codes of the new building, the ones an architect and a designer can’t plan for. The LoB will be all the better for that. It needs a few scratches, knocks and dents, it needs to become less popular, less of a destination, before it can do its job.

There’s more to life than books you know, but not much more

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.

CC: By Andy Mabbett
CC: By Andy Mabbett


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Ode to a Circle – Birmingham’s Flagship Library sets sail.

A new library opening prompts twenty-first century questions: what is the role of the library in the digital age? Wherefore books? Who now reads what, where? Despite what you may have heard, the paperless library is still a long way off.

Birmingham’s numerous city libraries over the last 150 years reflect the city’s lack of sentimentality about its past: you can now practically renew libraries over the phone. The current regeneration is nearly complete: you can take a look for yourself from next Tuesday. I had a guided tour last week from Mecanoo’s Patrick Arends and the space is amazing. I’ve been reserving judgement on the building for the last few years, feeling it’s only fair to see the interior of a building before forming an opinion on the building as a whole. I’d also like to see it working as a library before completely deciding. There have been many times since 2007 when it has been hard not to become annoyed by the new building: its encroachment into the civic square (itself very recent) seemed invasive and seeing the townscape of the Centenary Square broken up by the towering new building is a jarring moment. The gradual erosion of civic space is painful too: the land occupied by Central Library is being sold to a private company, as happened with Baskerville House. Awful rumours about there being less shelf space than the previous library were later confirmed. Meanwhile community libraries were losing staff and reducing their service – even brand new libraries like Shard End.

Looking up
Don’t look down

Of course, none of this is mentioned in the introductory presentation and indeed it isn’t the place to discuss it. The LoB team demonstrate their clear excitement about the project, and are now itching to share it. Mecanoo’s creative director Francine Houben describes it as an Ode to the Circle that should be seen as a (yeep) People’s Palace. After we’ve been given some shaky local info (Baskerville House is a “1920s building” and Birmingham is “Europe’s youngest city”) we’re ready to go. Things are still being installed and unpacked but there’s no getting around the fact that this is a wildly ambitious, astonishing space. Ascending through its various caverns, corridors and plateaux really is the journey Houben suggests it is. At no point is it obvious where the building you are, and in a library this is a good thing. As was said of John Madin’s windowless edifice: “a library is a window”. There are many moments I can’t work out what I’m seeing. And it’s a thrill that all this is a library: to put learning, reading and research to Birmingham’s fore in this way, after a long period of being marginalised at the expense of commercial spaces, is a reassuring, hopeful moment.

Continue reading “Ode to a Circle – Birmingham’s Flagship Library sets sail.”