The new Library of Birmingham: rubbish outside (above); magical inside (below)
To the opening ceremony of the new Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square today: an occasion made all the more powerful by the superb choice of anti-fascist Malala Yousefai to do the deed. In an inspirational speech, emphasising the emancipatory power of books and learning, Malala brought forth laughter by calling us (and herself) “broomies” – oh well, she hasn’t yet had time to pick up the accent. For the record, she called Brum her “second home” after “my beloved Pakistan.”
The new building itself is superb in every respect, except its outer appearance, which is a gigantic, square and over-decorated cake. The interlocking ornate circles on the outside are, supposedly, intended to represent Birmingham’s history of metalwork and jewellery manufacture. Unfortunately they weren’t manufactured in Brum or the Black Country, but in Switzerland.
Frankly, I think the “old” (ie: previous) library, designed by the now almost-forgotten modernist John Madin and completed in 1974, is a much more handsome building, and I’d been hoping it would be retained and given a new role. Sadly, I overheard Birmingham Council’s Deputy Leader Ian Ward today, telling someone that it’s going to be demolished.
But enough carping: once you’re inside, this is, indeed, a “people’s palace,” as architect Francine Houben of designers Mecanno, describes it. It includes everything you’d expect of a modern library (ie “an open information hub for the City”), plus a “library within a library” for children, massive archives accessible to the public, elevated gardens with stunning views of the city, and -right at the top- the reconstructed 1882 Shakespeare Memorial Room with Europe’s most extensive collection of Shakespearian manuscripts and Shakespeare-related literature.
This is, truly, a “people’s palace” and credit is due to Council / Labour Group leader Albert Bore (someone I’ve had clashes with in the past) and the Labour leadership of Birmingham City Council, who drove the project forward against Tory opposition at local and national level.
But this is likely to be the last such civic project in the UK for the foreseeable future. With the present cuts and the emasculation of local government finance by the Coalition, the idea of another £189m public project like this would now be unthinkable.
So why the hell was Tory / Coalition Minister for Culture Ed Vaisey invited to attend and speak at the opening ceremony?