With Birmingham's new public library opening last week, Mecanoo's latest large-scale public building has received mixed reviews from critics in the UK. Check out the critical responses from Hugh Pearman, The Telegraph's Stephen Bayley, The Guardian's Oliver Wainwright, The Observer's Rowan Moore, and The Financial Times' Edwin Heathcote after the break...
Stephen Bayley, The Telegraph
For Stephen Bayley "the state of public building is a measure of a nation’s psychic health", to which he offers a less than positive diagnosis for Birmingham Library. Describing it as more of an advertisement than a building, his interpretation of the clients' motives was to "claim a hip Mecanoo building as a metropolitan trophy" rather than create a space purely for reading and learning. Suggesting that "this all goes back to Bilbao, where Frank Gehry’s famous building is not really an art gallery", Birmingham's latest public building is a result of the city chasing "the Guggenheim Effect with a demand for popular monuments". Whether the library is an advertisement for Mecanoo, for the UK's second largest city, or to "debibliophy the library", Stephen Bayley certainly feels that Birmingham's latest public building will not secure a place in architecture's Hall of Fame.
Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian
For Wainwright the building is "a modern behemoth" that, "given Birmingham council's lust for demolition", might also endure the same fate in time. Describing its physical presence, "standing ten stories above Centenary Square", the motif of the circle is hard to ignore: "on a cloudy day, the library's oversized chain-mail looms menacingly above the square like a heavy suit of armour". Drawing comparisons with the city's 1970s Brutalist Central Library, a "bold inverted ziggurat of floating concrete planes" (which is soon to be demolished), Wainwright suggests that the love hate relationship with Birmingham's buildings is set to continue with this latest addition to the skyline.
Rowan Moore, The Observer
Arguing that architecture today is more about "package and wrapping", of which Birmingham Library outwardly encapsulates, Moore describes the building as a kind of "cuboid hive". Although he wouldn't describe it as the best library building in the world, he is positive about the design, stating that "it achieves most of its ambitions".
"It is a heartening statement of the importance of knowledge in the heart of a big city. Its claims for accessibility are convincing, but it doesn't condescend. It has both openness and dignity. The goldy-glittery exterior is a bit Vegas, but it stays this side of trashiness. The interior of atrium and escalators could be like a shopping mall, but it isn't."
Edwin Heathcote, The Financial Times
Standing as "an unmissable landmark" in the centre of Birmingham, for Heathcote the internal spaces of the library (notably the ground floor) "appear to be a real success". The building's "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. Stating that he is "often suspicious of buildings that use transparency as a metaphor for accessibility" he feels that "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". Likening Mecanoo's "ambitions of openness" to radical civic buildings such as OMA's Seattle Public Library, for Heathcote bold design in public buildings is certainly no bad thing.
Describing the form of the building as an "arrangement of staggered shallow boxes", or "a joggled heap of books" Pearman suggests that the facade of the library is either "enriched or disguised, depending on your preference" by the "highly-worked geometrical outer casing of interlocking aluminium circles" that define it's aesthetic. It is, however, "by no means a skin-deep building", arguing that "the architecture gets richer on the inside."
"What I like about it is the fact that it is anything but apologetic. It’s not shoved into a corner somewhere. It’s a proud new civic building, at a time when very few of those are being built. It says that there is something to city life that is about more than working and shopping and drinking, that learning and entertainment can co-exist, and so can analogue and digital. That one can look beyond the politics of class and envy, and provide a gracious place of common resort. The architecture will quickly become a period piece. That’s fine too, so long as it hangs together: all being well, it will mark a moment of enlightenment, emerging from dark times."