Bold and beautiful: the new Library of Birmingham

Over its ten storeys, the Library of Birmingham houses an art gallery, a children’s area, a multimedia centre, two cafés, a music library, a performance space, a theatre, a restaurant, terraces with herb gardens and more.

Whatever you think of the coalition’s austerity measures, you can’t blame it for the closure of the library in Alexandria. No one is sure but that disaster seems to have happened a few decades before the birth of Christ – so it’s off the hook for that one, at least. Much of the world’s knowledge up to that point went up in smoke with the burning of that vast, ancient repository, its destruction now a symbol of philistinism. Some think that had we not been playing intellectual catch-up for the 19 or so centuries after that, we might have landed on the moon around the time of Columbus. We would certainly have 123 plays by Sophocles, rather than seven.

Libraries gave us power, as the Manic Street Preachers once sang. Libraries also exude their own power, actual and symbolic. Like hospitals and churches, they are buildings charged with meaning about how a society sees itself and what it values. If the coalition had decided to close the nation’s municipal golf courses, it is hard to imagine that Nick Faldo would have chained himself to the seventh tee somewhere – but from Alan Bennett to Philip Pullman to Carol Ann Duffy, our writers decried this near-heretical act. Closing a library amounts to taking a book from a child’s hand,possibly literally.

The opening of the new Library of Birmingham is thus a faintly surreal moment, one that seems to fly joyously in the face of the dour, Gradgrind tenor of the times. It is bold, it is beautiful, it is barely believable. For five years, Brummies watched an extraordinary thing growing in the piazza at Centenary Square: an airy, black-and-gold palazzo of mesh and glass. On 3 September it opened to the public and among the crowds there was a buzz more akin to that of a Saturday at the Villa or a gig at the NEC than the launch of what is, in essence, a big building full of books.

A modern library is much more than that. Over its ten storeys, the Library of Birmingham houses an art gallery, a children’s area, a multimedia centre, two cafés, a music library, a performance space, a theatre, a restaurant, terraces with herb gardens and more. I was shown around by the architect Francine Houben of the Dutch collective Mecanoo; the tour was made all the more exhilarating by her evident love of the library and her awareness of what it means for the city.

“This is a people’s palace,” she enthused. When I asked whether the building expressed a striking visual statement on her part, she shrugged amiably and said, “It’s not about me, it’s about them,” indicating the throngs of people already eddying into every cranny and terrace, chatting, reading, writing, flirting (“Perfect for a snog,” she pointed out).

From the central rotunda, walkways radiate out to the terraces and gardens. These are spaces with the kinds of views – breathtaking vistas across the city to the soft, green hills of Clent, the Malverns and Wales – that are usually the preserve of upscale bars and hotels where Wags and minor celebs sip eyewateringly pricey cocktails. It is a democratising coup de théâtre, giving the city back to its residents.

On the way to meet the library’s director, Brian Gambles, Houben invited me to smell the mint and basil in the herb gardens and picked a delicious raspberry for me. Gambles often stops off here for a moment in the balmy evenings, on his way to one of the regular briefings that the team holds to monitor progress and problems. When he came to work at the city’s old library in the mid- 1980s, one of the first tasks he oversaw was the installation of two PCs.

The new library has cost £189m, or roughly two and a half Gareth Bales. Gambles frankly admits that the commission came in just “under the wire” of the financial crisis. “We were given the go-ahead in October 2007, just before the crash,” he said. “I spent the first two years preparing cancellation reports, detailing just what the cost would be if we abandoned the project.” There has been, one feels, quite a lot of quiet and steely determination behind this venture, which is characteristic of a great, unfashionable and vibrant city that, like Chicago or Detroit in its heyday, has always worked hard and got on with things without self-aggrandising blather.

The opening address – short on blather, long on heart –was by an adopted Brummie, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ rights to go to school. At the end of her speech, she placed a copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist on the shelf, the last of the 400,000 volumes on display. There are hundreds of thousands more in the archive, including two – a Shakespeare First Folio and John James Audubon’s Birds of America –worth £7m each.

As we passed a group of sightseers, one touched Houben’s sleeve and said, “This is beautiful. I love it. Thank you.” In these conflicted times, you might think it’s impossible to find a story that’s incontrovertibly good news. This seems to be it.

Gilded palace: the Library of Birmingham opened to the public on 3 September. Photo: Christian Richters

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Nicholas Serota's Diary

The Arts Council England chair on tea with Lord Sainsbury, solving problems with cake, and opening up the industry.

On Saturday, I head to the Theatre Royal Stratford East to see Tommy, an extra­ordinary production of The Who’s musical that has emerged from a collaboration between the Ipswich-based New Wolsey Theatre and Ramps on the Moon, a consortium taking work with deaf and disabled performers into the mainstream. Preconceptions about what we understand by “disabled” are blown away. The cast dazzles with talent and brings to the work a bold perspective that leaves the mind fizzing with challenges. How important it is to make this kind of work central to what we do.

Sunday

A chance amid a busy transitional time to enjoy a private party at home, with a collective celebration for daughters’ and grand-daughters’ birthdays. Lots of cake-eating, which is good practice for my new job at the Arts Council, where any difficulty can be surmounted with the help of a slice of lemon drizzle or Victoria sponge.

Monday

My first full day in my new office at Arts Council England in Bloomsbury. A massive in-box to clear. Bent double over this most of the day, I manage somehow to do my back in again, thus proving that the burden of the abstract is no less weighty than that of the real. There are also emails from former museum colleagues at the Art Basel fair, where Maria Balshaw is the centre of attention.

Tuesday

A day of meetings with wonderful benefactors: including tea with Lord Sainsbury and his wife, who have done a huge amount to improve access to the arts. Their support for the Ashmolean, the Holburne in Bath and London-based galleries is well known. They have also been involved with a wholesale redesign of public areas at the Royal Opera House, which will lead to greater access and use for education and events during the day, as well as a complete makeover of the important Linbury Studio.

I finish the day by hopping on the Tube to the Tate to attend a farewell party for a long-serving member of the building projects team. We joined and left at the same time and, in between, we have built a lot together. So it was poignant.

Wednesday

I head to the national council of the Arts Council, and we sign off on the new national portfolio for 2018 to 2o22. It ends an exhaustive process that began 18 months ago.

This is where the Arts Council will spend the bulk of its funds over the next four years, some £1.6bn in total, across 831 organisations that determine the future direction of the arts sector. It has been fascinating. The Arts Council remains a custodian of standards and aesthetics, but it is also increasingly working with partners across government, local authorities, higher education and communities as a developer of social environments, giving people a voice and helping them to articulate what is culturally relevant to their lives. There are evolving expectations. People now look to the arts to increase well-being and regenerate local economies. Fortunately, despite the cuts in recent years, the Arts Council still has excellent knowledge and networks to help it deliver national policy at a local level.

There are two important headlines to the investment we agreed. First, that it delivers a substantial increase in funding outside London – roughly £170m over the four years, supporting a geographically wider and a more genuinely diverse range of organisations. We have held nothing back. The time is right to invest for lasting change. As the success of Hull as the UK City of Culture this year has shown, there is an appetite and a need for the arts. We can and will do more for people everywhere.

Second, we have done this without any overall reduction in investment in London, where we have refreshed the portfolio, bringing in from the margins some brilliant and challenging companies. That has been made possible by the selfless way that leading organisations based in London have taken a small cut so our funds can go further. They understand that everyone benefits from a more diverse arts world – not least London. The strength of this wonderful city comes from the breadth of the cultural conversation it has. It is an inspiration, even in the darkest moments.

Thursday

To a BBC board meeting, where we touch on the progress of Culture UK, the partnership that brings together the BBC, Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Arts Council of Wales and Creative Scotland. There is funding for organisations to make content that can be shown on the BBC and plans so far to put theatre, opera, ballet and the spoken word into broadcasting, while the BBC’s online platform can widen public access to such events as the Manchester International Festival.

Friday

Another full day at the Arts Council, reviewing plans for the announcement of the national portfolio, discussing the nuance of particular decisions, prepping with a huge amount of detail. I’m also thinking ahead to events in July, when I’ll be talking about the international work of arts organisations at the Creative Industries Federation conference. There is a strong awareness of the “soft power” of the arts, while we often overlook the obvious – that international exchange, collaboration and experience are crucial to the standard of practice we enjoy in Britain, and that they are also a valuable and potentially huge source of income.

Again, the Arts Council has expertise in this area. It takes time and investment to acquire this knowledge. Over the next few years, we will need – as an arts sector and as a nation – to make the most of all the expertise we possess. I’m looking forward to the challenge. 

Nicholas Serota was the director of Tate between 1988 and 2017. He is now the chair of Arts Council England

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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