That wonderful, mad ambition to contain all the knowledge in the world has been with us for millennia. The Library of Alexandria in the 3rd century BC became the archetype, an Atlantis of lost learning and a symbol of a city. Later the torch would pass from cities to monasteries and palaces, as libraries became tools with which to praise God or monuments to wealth and power. These were secret, privileged environments: the monks at their cold, hard carrels, the princes and their cabinets of curiosity, the new universities with books chained to desks and locked behind cupboard doors.
It was the Enlightenment that inaugurated a rational new age based on knowledge, in which access to that knowledge was no longer seen as dangerous but as desirable. The Victorians, with a characteristic blend of paternalism and civic pride, instituted libraries as engines of self-improvement testifying to the dynamism of their new industrial cities. Books lost their chains and the library remains one of the few spaces in which we can feel we are citizens rather than consumers, a place to which access is free, in which we ourselves become free.
Today the solid, reassuring presence of the civic library is threatened, and not just by government cuts; the internet, we are told, is obviating the need for books. Yet the recent explosion in the building of big, spectacular and self-consciously symbolic libraries around the world would seem to contradict that idea. The latest of these, the £188m Library of Birmingham, will be Europe’s largest in terms of floor area when it opens on Tuesday. It is the fourth central library to serve Britain’s second city, the first having been built in 1865 and the third still standing just around the corner, a Brutalist 1970s inverted ziggurat now sadly doomed to demolition.
The new library is an unmissable landmark and its exuberance has, even before it has opened, enlivened the sparse plaza between the sombre neoclassical Baskerville House and the municipal modernism of Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Designed by Dutch architects Mecanoo, it is a gesture that allows the public sector to match the sculptural bravado of the nearby Bullring shopping centre’s striking, amoeboid Selfridges. Like Selfridges, the library seems to have borrowed motifs from fashion. The façade of interlinking circles looks more like a Tokyo fashion store than a civic structure, its open, glazed floors far more accessible than those of any of its austere predecessors.
The contemporary library is, of course, something very different to the stolid classical pile of a century ago. Designed to be open and light, modern libraries take their language more from the commercial corporate office than the civic landmark. They are also – whatever bibliophiles like me might think – about more than just books. As media come and go, from scrolls to VHS cassettes and CD-ROMs, the library adapts.
But what exactly is the role of the library building in the modern city? Brian Gambles, project director at the Library of Birmingham, tells me it “must be inclusive, transparent and inviting – a public space in the city which is welcoming to all”. Above all, it must be a showcase for learning. Gesturing to the huge, wide-open space of the foyer, he says: “We need to make this a landing strip for people who may not be culturally attuned to using a public building.”
In a manner, that is precisely why the contemporary library has absorbed the tropes of commercial and retail architecture, becoming closer to a mall than the hushed halls of the past. Mecanoo’s founder, Francine Houben, tells me with huge enthusiasm that the façade is “designed to suggest the city’s history of industry, jewellery-making and craftsmanship” but in fact it does quite the opposite, the thin appliqué screen hinting at a certain superficiality. When I ask whether the thousands of metal circles were manufactured locally (this is, after all, still the heart of Britain’s precision metalworking industry), Houben candidly, if a little defensively, comes back: “No, no one could make them here. They were made in Munich.”
I’m often suspicious of buildings that use transparency as a metaphor for accessibility – glass walls are the great cliché of the democratisation of architecture. But the Library of Birmingham’s ground floor does, however, appear to be a real success, a concourse that absorbs the bustle of the pre-theatre crowds from the neighbouring Rep with which it shares the space (Gambles calls this “the partnership of the written and the spoken word”), the animation of the street, the activity of the children’s library below, and the motion of the escalators that will draw visitors up and into the massive, wonderfully theatrical bookstacks above.
It is far from unique in these ambitions of openness. London-based architect David Adjaye used similar ideas in 2004 and 2005 to reinvent the language of the library in his two east London Idea Stores, which aimed to reach a young, multicultural, often deprived constituency who had no collective memory of the civic library. The Seattle Public Library, built in 2004 by OMA (based, like Mecanoo, in the Netherlands), is arguably one of the most radical and even revolutionary civic buildings of the new century. It might be best known for its inventive continuous book-stacked ramp, which rises as the numbers of the Dewey Decimal system increase, but most surprising for me when I visited shortly after it opened was that its striking glass-roofed reading room was inhabited mostly by Seattle’s homeless, gently dozing over randomly selected books. It presented the city with a truly public and genuinely generous public space.
In return for that generosity, libraries are also passionately loved. The rash of closures of local libraries by cash-stricken local authorities in England has prompted real (and justified) outrage of the kind only otherwise witnessed with the closure of hospitals. Libraries are seen as remnants of a real public realm; they are spaces that belong to citizens. Recent proposals to reconfigure New York’s imposing 42nd St public library (losing many of the hallowed bookstacks) and close down two other branches were greeted with dismay and vocal protests in the city – even though Norman Foster’s plan actually increases the space available to the public. Big capital projects such as 42nd St and Birmingham will always attract ire when hundreds of smaller, local libraries are under threat.
If the library is a metaphor for the city itself, it can play just as profound a role in creating the image of a nation. One of the most famous images in architecture is visionary architect Etienne-Louis Boullée’s single-point perspective of a library for Paris (1785), a vast vaulted space in which the books are bricks and readers sit below a coffered vault foreshadowing the great roofs of the 19th-century stations. This was a model for a rational new France based, like Diderot’s encyclopedia, on knowledge.
The tradition of an architecture parlante reached a nadir in 1996 with Dominique Perrault’s Bibliothèque Nationale de France, a grand projet initiated by François Mitterrand. This library’s four glazed, L-shaped towers rapidly roasted the valuable books and papers housed in them and proved barely usable until modified with an expensive shutter system.
Very different indeed are the library parks of Medellín, Colombia’s second city, built at the suggestion of the citizens (many dwelling in favelas) after they were asked what infrastructure they needed most. A blend of public realm, library and school, these carefully and coolly designed buildings have transformed lives in some of the country’s poorest communities.
Even more striking in its ambition to become a symbol of a nation is the planned library for Baghdad. The city once boasted the world’s best libraries and, when they were destroyed by the Mongols in 1258, the legend is that the Tigris turned black with ink. In April 2003, US troops were criticised for standing by as the National Library of Baghdad was looted and ransacked in a terrible historical echo.
The architects behind the new design stress the building’s role as public space. “Libraries are traditionally unsociable, with no talking,” says Amir Mousawi of AMBS, which has offices in London and Baghdad. “But now all that has changed and the library isn’t that kind of space any more. There are few places for social exchange in Baghdad, places where boys and girls can mix and where that kind of exchange is possible – this library needs to be one of them.”
The security situation in the city demands that the library should be in a gated complex but it is proposed, nevertheless, as exactly the kind of free, open public space the city currently lacks. Its architecture is as theatrical, acrobatic and as symbolic of an ideal of national renewal as any library anywhere.
In Birmingham, I ask Gambles whether there can be any economic justification for such a huge capital outlay on one building. He takes a deep breath. “There isn’t a metric but there are a lot of arguments,” he says. “You want the library to be part of a better economic future. We have a business support centre, a whole floor of the building from where we hope to launch 500 new businesses a year.”
Ultimately, however, the emphasis is firmly on education – and Gambles believes that this represents a return to a traditional role. “When the public library service started in the 1850s, it was about how to give opportunities to those who didn’t have opportunities to learn through the formal system,” he says. “Over time we lost that and the library became about transaction, about finding and borrowing products. That transactional function is withering as there are now so many more media than just the book.”
The old, forlorn Birmingham library sat over a dark shopping mall, ambitiously named Paradise Circus, after Paradise Street, site of the city’s first library. Jorge Luis Borges, who for 18 years was the director of the National Library in Buenos Aires, once said: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” In Birmingham’s new library, as in every other library, it is easy to see what he meant.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
Letter in response to this article: