The new Library of Birmingham is the city’s third central library. The old Victorian building (which I do not remember) was replaced in the early 1970s by a concrete brutalist structure, which at the time of writing still stands but has now been replaced by the new building a short distance away. Brutalism is coming to be admired again, with justice I think, although we no longer admire the practice of sweeping old buildings away in its favour. This combination would perhaps have been the ideal one forty years ago.
Still, I like the new library very much, and for this reason. Its design is a quirky and idiosyncratic one which can be taken as a symbol of the idiosyncrasy and eccentricity with which individual minds work, and for this reason it is also a symbol of scholarship and learning, which are products of the ways individual minds explore and transmute the world of knowledge and of thought. Its asymmetry, the way its metal cladding catches the light in both silver and gold and its geometrical decoration – all hold a promise of the play of thought. The decoration frames the view from every window. When we go inside we are similarly beguiled by the variegated matrix of shapes in the stairwell, and the sweep of the escalators and travolators that carry us to the top of the building floor by floor. There are echoes of Victorian library design in the shelves around the stairwell housing bound volumes of periodicals, and in the metal staircases – they’re got up to look like iron, but I suppose they are steel – which link floors of shelves.
One piece of the actual Victorian library has survived in the Shakespeare room. The ornate panelling, ceiling and bookcases of this room were transshipped intact from the Victorian to the brutalist library so that the room survived though the building did not. Nearly thirty years ago I studied local studies librarianship in that room in the brutalist building. Now the room has been transshipped once more. The effect of being in the same room but in a different building is startling enough to one who has been in it in two buildings. What must it be like to someone who has known it in all three? Or to one who knew it in the Victorian building and has rediscovered it now but who never knew it in the brutalist building?
And then there are the terraces with their gardens. Having roof gardens at all might be thought a luxury, a distraction from the library’s utilitarian purpose, but they are surely places to stand and gaze, an activity conducive to creative thinking. What can we gaze at? Well there are the plants – and these range beyond the merely decorative to take in tomato plants. Then there is the city with its clustered array of buildings.
And there is the view of the city’s suburbs and the distant hills beyond, a draw to anyone like me who loves suburbs; who, seeing the characteristic landscape of a suburb, its meld of terracotta and green, thinks instinctively of the individual lives lived in them, at oblique angles to each other but still perpetually combining, re-combining and interlocking.
Individual lives, individual minds: the Library of Birmingham is a place to savour.