“It is an honour for me to be here in Birmingham, the beating heart of England. Birmingham is very special for me because it is here that I found myself alive, seven days after I was shot. It is now my second home, after my beloved Pakistan. The doctors and nurses of this town worked hard to help me recover. The teachers of this town strived to rehabilitate my educational career, and the great people of this city gave me great moral support.”
“Pens and books are the weapons that defeat terrorism. I truly believe the only way we can create global peace is through educating not only our minds, but our hearts and our souls.”
On the 3rd September 2013 the New Library of Birmingham was opened. Starting with a fanfare followed by an inauguration speech by Malala Yousafzai, a truly inspired and appropriate choice, the public were finally allowed to see how the reported £188 million had been spent.
Built to replace the stunning, but badly treated, Madin Library the decision and design has been controversial. Having observed the construction of the new library from a hole in the ground, to majestic concrete, to the final circular cage I am not convinced it is the right building in the right place, looming over Baskerville House with a fussy covering hiding a conventional glass box.
The inside, fortunately, is much more interesting.
Arriving just after the doors open to find a large but friendly crowd. Yes a large crowd queuing to visit a library. After a slightly chaotic, but again friendly, wait it is through the doors into the large reception area. People are handing out information and the Stan’s Cafe Commentators are in a hut. Then up the blue-lined escalators to level 2 and the Book Rotunda, with many shelves of colour-coordinated law books.
From level 2 is access to a large outside terrace garden with some good views of the city, but the best views are from the smaller, secret garden up on level 7 and the skyline viewpoint on level 9.
Back inside to the Book Rotunda for the main reason for visiting, Together We Breath created by Super Critical Mass. The piece was for mass brass band, all volunteers from schools, colleges and professional ensembles. You can see the creators discuss the project and watch a clip of the rehearsal here. Whilst being described as having “not a tune in earshot but that’s not any kind of problem” the drone-brass did have a score, or at least a plan:
From my perspective the piece worked brilliantly, filling the space with hypnotic sound with a structure just beyond understanding, although it was slightly faster than expected from the rehearsal.
This performance was the start of the Discovery Season, curated by the always interesting, and reliably brilliant Capsule, responsible for the Supersonic Festival and many amazing musical events. Very much looking forward to the rest of the season, especially Charlemagne Palestine and Rhys Chatham and Adrian Utley doing In C (with Pram!).
As for the rest of the building it is far too early to know if it will work but on day one the mixed and happy crowd loved it, with the story steps on the lower ground being very popular.
True there were some problems with the escalators stopping, probably due to the numbers of users, although I like to think it was in homage to the Madin Library with people stuck in the glass lift on its first day. Also some of the finish looks rough and hurried around the escalators. Even with all the people the building still felt spacious and easy to move around. The travelators from level 3 to 4 may help with people-moving but they do ruin the effect of the Book Rotunda cutting intrusively, in colour and size, across the top of the circular space.
The biggest disappointment, for me, is the Amphitheatre. From the original description and plans I envisaged more of a usable performance space, with tiered steps leading down to a below-ground stage. What we have is a sunken circle with no access from above and very limited viewing, just a single row around the fence. Whilst it is being used for some performances, and the opening fanfare, this appears a missed opportunity.
To help find your way around there is an excellent visitor guide which can be downloaded to prepare in advance.
And visit you must, this is an important addition to the city and deserves to be used and explored. Now if only we can convert Madin’s Library into the Birmingham Museum of Modern Art…
— words by Paul
— pictures by Paul & Dave