It has been described as ‘heroic’ via WiFi or the library’s computers, and a ‘people’s palace’. It promises to boost economic and social regeneration and provide a much-needed landmark in a city beleaguered by its public image. Crucially, it could offer a blueprint for the future of libraries at a time when they need it most.
The Library of Birmingham, due to open in September 2013, is Britain’s largest public sector cultural project and a flagship of Birmingham’s award-winning Big City Plan for city centre development.
Ambitious not just in scale, this project aims to challenge the traditional concept of a library. It will be a place not just for books and reading, but also exhibition and performance spaces, a knowledge hub for the city’s cultural and learning development, and a secure archive for the city’s internationally significant collections of books, archives, music and photographs.
And, to make it a library for the 21st century, it will be a place where everyone can access information digitally – whether in the building via external online access or through collaboration with community libraries.
Brian Gambles (pictured right) project director at Birmingham City Council, says: “We’re trying to achieve a huge cultural transformation. People in the city were initially a little sceptical (and I don’t blame them) about spending a lot of money on a library at a time when there is a conversation about the continued value of the public library.”
Brian envisages a lasting legacy – a possible blueprint – for the future of libraries. “Building an extremely large and sophisticated library in the middle of a city is not the same as running a small neighbourhood library and you can’t replicate everything.
“But the delivery strategy is very much a partnership strategy and one that other libraries could try to emulate. We’re also trying to bring a more commercial mindset to the way we run the library, without compromising the free library service. There is an interesting model of governance for libraries we’re looking to set up.”
A Dream Team
If the project is unusual, the team approach is too. First, there are two clients involved – Birmingham City Council and the neighbouring Repertory Theatre, which will be physically linked to the library.
Second, the team was assembled before the design was drawn up. Brian Gambles explains that getting the right people together is key to the project’s success so far: “We wanted a team who would understand the client’s brief before we designed the building.” Terry Perkins is client-side project manager for the council. He comments: “You can have good project management systems in terms of cost plans and programmes, but when I look back on my 35 years’ experience at the difference between the good and bad jobs, it’s actually about the people.”
The first team member was Capita Symonds, appointed project manager, cost manager and construction, design and management (CDM) coordinator. The consultancy supported the city on creating a business case for the new library and helped the city set up its own project governance structure. Then, together with the clients, Capita Symonds held an international competition to attract the right design team.
David Robertson (pictured right) project director from Capita Symonds, explains: “We didn’t want designers to come along with preconceived ideas. It was quite unusual and quite a challenge for the architect.” Dutch firm Mecanoo overcame that challenge, and was hired to lead a design consortium with a single point of responsibility.
Carillion was brought in as contractor 12 months earlier than originally proposed so it could contribute to the design process. There are another 15 to 20 organisations that are significantly engaged with the project, according to Brian Gambles.
One of Brian’s primary roles has been to inspire a passion for excellence and a belief in the project so that the key players can enthuse their staff and sub-contractors. “We set out to build the best public library in the world, and if everybody doesn’t believe we can do that, then we aren’t going to achieve it.”
With so many involved parties and complex relationships to manage, how was this achieved? “We’ve tried to say this is not just about building a library – it is about place-making, about what the library can do for the city’s quality of life,” explains Brian, a former librarian himself.
“So it’s been about making sure people understand what each other’s different disciplines can bring to the party, and ensuring everybody is signed up to a fairly simple set of values and a clear vision,” he adds. “The ‘best library in the world’ is a big statement, but then you can challenge people to reflect on what that actually means to them.
“For example Carillion is not only trying to achieve excellence in the quality of its construction but also excellence as a considerate contractor in the local neighbourhood and excellent community relationships.”
The team has faced a number of practical challenges: the city-centre site is tight, the design is complex, the imetable is challenging and the budget has been squeezed.
Brian explains: “In 2006, we were projecting a budget of £232m with a completion date of 2014. We initially shaved £39m off the budget to £193m, which we have further knocked down to £188.8m. Plus we have taken about nine months off the build programme.”
Capita Symonds’ David Robertson points out that they are not just managing a construction project. “That in its own right would be a challenge, given the scale. We’re managing about 10 different workstreams, including bringing on new staff and communicating how their roles will change.
“We’re also managing the move, which we are planning already. All stock and archives have to be referenced and put in controlled storage. We need to get rooms ready, test them and adjust the temperature gradually as the stock is brought in.”
As the new library will offer an information network fit for the digital age, a major new IT programme needs to be implemented, which Capita Symonds is also managing. “The way the library service is delivered is undergoing a major transformation,” David says.
Terry Perkins, project manager and a qualified building surveyor, reflects on his approach to a project of this scale. “The main project is made up of hundreds of mini projects; these need to be closely coordinated as they can sometimes have competing objectives.”
He says that you have to “get under the skin” of how different buildings work. “To deliver what the client wants you’ve really got to understand what they do, how they do it and how they want to do it in the future. And you can’t do that overnight; you have to invest a lot of time to really embed yourself within their office.”
Terry adds: “I probably didn’t even hold a library card before I came here and now I feel that I know considerably more about how libraries operate; they are amazingly complex buildings.”
Despite the challenges – or perhaps because of them – the project is progressing at an impressive rate. “We’re just tackling the interesting challenge of how we relocate between 50 and 75 miles of books and archives, some of which are pretty fragile and valuable,” says Brian.
A library for The future
The project is now capturing a lot of positive media attention, with visits from Prime Minister David Cameron and property TV presenter Kevin McCloud. “I think increasingly people are ‘getting’ the fact that there is a continued need for the library and to reinvent what it does in the 21st century,” comments Brian.
“In terms of success, winning hearts and minds is what I treasure most.”
But will the public’s hearts and minds be won come opening day? “We’ve got a design that is just wonderful,” enthuses Brian. “I think it’ll be hugely well received. I’m wondering how we’ll manage the crowd control issues – but that’s a nice problem to have.”
David Robertson anticipates how the building’s success will be defined after it opens: “In terms of being the best library in the world, it probably won’t be the books. Some people will like the architecture, some won’t, but defining the best library is about customer experience.”
As for working on the project, he describes it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: “This is the most fantastic project that I’ve worked on to date. It will be a stunning building, something that Birmingham [city] will be proud of and will certainly benefit from.”
For Terry Perkins (pictured right) whose background is in regeneration and planning, it’s about what the building will do for the city in terms of social and economic benefits. “Over the road there’s a big site that has not been developed because of the recession, and we’re hoping the library will stimulate that. Then there’s a massive opportunity in developing the site of the old library and its surrounding area.”
But equally crucial to regenerating the city is improving its image. Terry adds: “What we’d really like is for Birmingham to be known not just for Selfridges or Spaghetti Junction – to be known for a cultural building would be a great success.”
About the library
The architects of the Library of Birmingham have created an “intuitive journey of discovery”, with offset rotundas and a “surprise around every corner”.
The Library, in Birmingham’s Centenary Square, will be physically connected to the Repertory Theatre and will comprise 10 storeys, with nine above ground and a lower ground floor with indoor terraces. There will be four further public levels and two outdoor garden terraces.
An intricate metal façade, echoing the gasometers, tunnels, canals and viaducts that fuelled Birmingham’s industrial growth, will envelop the building from the first to the eighth floor.
A ‘golden box’ of secure archive storage, with high-performance insulation, will house the city’s internationally significant collections. Occupying two
levels of the building, the golden box will be formed from gold- coloured, anodised, aluminium panels with a metallic finish that will change hue depending on weather and sunlight conditions.
Plus, a ‘state-of-the-art’ exhibition space will create public access to the collections. At the summit, a rooftop rotunda will house the Shakespeare Memorial Room, originally part of Birmingham’s Victorian library – and a panoramic viewing gallery where visitors will be able to enjoy stunning views from one of the highest points in the city.
An outdoor amphitheatre in Centenary Square will also provide a performance space for music, drama, poetry reading, storytelling and more.