I was in Birmingham today and took the time to visit the new Birmingham Library. I’d heard about it on the dreaded Radio 4 when a few weeks ago they’d run a hugely positive effectively promotional report on it prior to opening. It had opened earlier this week and as it was a Saturday today there were queues to get in.
The route through the centre of Birmingham took us through the square where the old library had been. There was the staged seating that I remember around the square with the old library above it. I kept looking at the building wondering if we were there yet, not sure what the new one would look like or where it would be. I was following a friend, a Quaker friend who was visiting the new site for the first time as well although he knew the City well.
We followed what were crowds up the steps and through a double electronic glass sliding doors. It was hard to get through so many people were coming the other way and men with loudhailers stood on the other side calling people to ‘keep to the right’. We walked through what were the opened out innards of the old library re-roofed and filled with shops and bars through the other side and into a large square, a place which reminded me of nothing less than Paris.
At the far end was what was clearly the new library, the most modern building on the square. I was struck at once by its resemblance to a Mosque. It is a tiered building surmounted by a golden, not dome, but cylindrical form. The building is clad with a formal flower inspired patterning which echoed early designs I’ve seen in Norman mosaics in Sicily. A Mosque. I laughed. No one had mentioned that. It felt like a Freudian slip, either by the architect or me. What a wonderful co-production it was.
To get in we had to queue and I was taken back to the Pompidou Centre, was it called the Beau Bourg or something like that, in Paris, in the early 1980s. Inside as we went up escalators to see the building and reach the view points from which the midlands plain was visible I looked down at some bookshelves below. The books looked so small and untouched by these crowds. Rather like empty seats on a provincial circus tour.