Ordinarily I use this space to talk about photography and walking, but today I thought I would mention something slightly different, my visit to the new Library of Birmingham. I was incredibly excited to return back to my home city as there has been quite a buzz surrounding the opening of the library. The project has been in operation for a number of years and the local media has been following the progress of the building closely.
The old central library, built in 1974, played a tremendously important part in my adolescence, as I spent many an afternoon looking through the library’s collection of photography books. For some time the older building has looked tired, fitting in with a particular style reminiscent of the 60’s post war architecture that has become synonymous with the of centre of Birmingham.
In comparison the new library is much more opulent and impressive, marking an encouraging sense of direction for the redefining and modernisation of the city. The library appears to be much larger than its predecessor reaching upward for nine storeys. For me the new library is perhaps Birmingham’s most spectacular architectural achievement in recent years.
With more than three million visitors expected each year, one of the most exciting aspects of the library opening is the thought that it will be driving more people towards an educational space rather than a retail environment. Recently Birmingham has had an number of interesting and exciting redevelopments, the Bullring, the Cube and Selfridges spring to mind, but for me this marks a much more cultural venture, promoting Art and Education rather than the possibility of the ultimate retail experience.
Each of the floors are strikingly decorated with blue neon and black. Escalators swiftly move visitors between floors and a glass lift transports visitors up to the top terraces. Looking upwards towards the roof brought the MoMA in New york to mind. What really blew me away about the building was the access to the two elevated garden terraces. When looking over the railing it dawned upon me that in all my years growing up in Birmingham I had never seen it from above, and here the views are extraordinary.
The Library has various cafes and interactive media libraries as well as its impressive photographic collection. The old central library used to house its photographic book collection within glass cases, which made it frustratingly inconvenient to access the books. However they seem to have made steps to resolve this, as many of their photographic books are now on display. The Library of Birmingham also features a BFI Mediatheque, which provides free access to the National Film Archive.
As well as exploring the building, I also wanted to visit the reference works exhibition at the library’s new photographic gallery. For photographers based in the Midlands, this is a very exciting hub for exhibitions, commissions and artist talks. The gallery is a nice large space and the current exhibition was well curated and presented. Four photographers, Brian Griffin, Stuart Whipps, Andrew Lacon and Michael Collins, were commissioned to make a body of work in reference to the building. All of the work was beautifully printed and framed and each piece was given ample space for the work to take hold of the viewer. It’s a triumphant first show from an inspiring and highly influential selection of photographers. For more on the exhibition, you can visit a dedicated site here.
Looking back on my visit to the library, I left feeling excited. Birmingham, being an important post industrial city, has gone through a massive transformation in recent years. It has become a busy retail environment that for me, at times, has lacked the cultural buzz you can find in other major British cities. However I think times are rapidly changing and Birmingham is fast becoming the place to visit in the Midlands, which is much richer in photography and the arts. The new library is symbolic of this rapid change and will help to make the city a distinctive and thriving place of cultural modernity. I was impressed and I highly recommend a visit.
You can find out more information about The Library of Birmingham here.