Dutch architect Francine Houben designed the new Library of Birmingham at Centenary Square – the largest public library in Europe – in Birmingham, England. She is Creative Director of the architectural firm Mecanoo architecten in Delft, The Netheralands. The futuristic building, which cost £189,000,000, officially opens today, Tuesday, September 3, 2013.
According to photojournalist Christopher Furlong, “The modern exterior of interlacing rings reflects the canals and tunnels of Birmingham.” The ten-story library building houses the city’s lending library, non-circulating rare book collection, archives, and photograph collection.
Malala Yousafzai and Lord Mayor Mike Leddy opened the Library of Birmingham at Centenary Square, which is listed by Google as the “New Birmingham Library.” [Last October, Taliban gunmen attacked her on a school bus in Pakistan because she was an outspoken advocate of educating girls.] Francine Houben also attended the ceremony.
This is Birmingham’s fourth central library. Edward Middleton Barry (1830-1880) designed the classical façade of the first Birmingham Central Library, which opened in the mid-1860s. The architectural firm of Martin & Chamberlain designed the interior.
The Lending Library opened in 1865 and the Reference Library opened in 1866. A fire in 1879 destroyed approximately 49,000 volumes out of a 50,000-volume collection. The second Birmingham Central Library was built on the site of the first.
John Henry Chamberlain (1831-1883) designed the second Birmingham Central Library in the Lombardic Renaissance style. This building became overcrowded by 1938, but the outbreak of the Second Great World War and its detrimental impact on the British Empire meant it would not be replaced until the 1970s. Regrettably, it was demolished in 1974.
John Madin designed the third Birmingham Central Library, which opened January 12, 1974, in the Brutalist style. Initially, Madin’s 250,000-square-foot building was also the largest public library in Europe.
The Reference Library is an inverted zigguart. The Lending Library, built as a three-story wing of the Reference Library, has a curved façade that faced the Birmingham Town Hall.
Ms. Houben’s multi-colored building with terrace gardens stands in dramatic contrast to Madin’s monochromatic pre-cast concrete buildings. However, in fairness to Madin, he had originally proposed that the buildings be clad in limestone or marble, but the Corporation (City of Birmingham) deemed these options too expensive.
J. H. Chamberlain also designed the Gothic Revival-style Chamberlain Monument which stands in front of the third Birmingham Central Library in Chamberlain Square. The eponym for the monument and square was Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914), a local businessman who made a fortune in the manufacture of screws before he served as the city’s mayor and then as a M.P. (Member of Parliament) as a member of the Liberal Party and Liberal Unionist Party. Madin designed the semi-circular amphitheater that surrounds the Chamberlain Monument.
The new library building stands between the Baskerville House and the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (The Rep) in Centenary Square on Broad Street. Baskerville House was formerly a civic administration building formerly called Civic Centre. It is now an office building named in honor of a local printer, John Baskerville (1706-1775), because it was built on the former site of his home, not as an allusion to the fictional Baskervilles from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel.
The Centenary Square is also home to the Hall of Memory, the International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall, and a hotel. The Birmingham City Council named it Centenary Square in 1989 in honor of the 100th anniversary of Queen Victoria granting Birmingham a royal charter, the first industrial town that lacked an Anglican cathedral to receive city status based on population.
In August of 2008, Ms. Houben won a contest to design the Library of Birmingham. There were only six other names on the short list.
She is the Creative Director of the architectural firm Mecanoo architecten in Delft, The Netheralands. Her partners are Technical Director Aart Fransen, Francesco Veenstra, Ellen van der Wal, and Paul Ketelaars.
In November of 2008, the Birmingham City Council awarded the position of “lead construction contractor” to The Carillion Group. This company is based in Wolverhampton, which is in the West Midlands like Birmingham. The Carillion Group had annual revenue in 2012 of about £4,400,000,000, employs approximately 42,000 people, and operates across the U.K., in the Middle East, and Canada.
Ms. Houben integrated an adjacent existent building, The Rep, into her designed for the new building. The library lobby is the gateway to The Rep.
The Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company is celebrating its centenary, as Sir Barry Jackson (1879-1961) founded the organization in 1913. A number of great actors and actresses – including Sir Ralph Richardson (1902-1983), Dame Edith Evans (1888-1976), and Sir Laurence Olivier (1907-1989), Baron Olivier - started their stage careers at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company’s former home, now known as The Old Rep in Station Street.
In 1971, the theatre company moved to its newly built theatre on Broad Street. The new theatre had a larger stage. It was an auditorium with a more egalitarian design lacking balconies or boxes for the upper classes or pillars to block the view of groundlings.
A Birmingham City Council spokeswoman wrote on April 29, 2013, “Relocating the company back into the building will take place from the end of May through to July. The REP also opens to the public on 3 September 2013 with a new 300-seat studio theatre – for shared use with the Library of Birmingham – as well as the restoration of the building’s original façade, plus much improved public and backstage facilities.”
Simon Dingle, Operations Director at Carillion, said, “We’re thrilled that the construction of the Library of Birmingham is almost complete. The project has been a true partnership, and over the course of the project, 293 local persons and 84 trade apprentices have been created on site.”
 He called for educational reform and supported the extension of the franchise to hundreds of thousands of men who were agricultural workers, but he opposed Irish Home Rule. Chamberlain served as President of the Board of Trade in the cabinet of Prime Minster William E. Gladstone (1809-1898), from 1880 to 1885, during Gladstone’s third administration, but opposed Irish Home Rule, so he withdrew from Gladstone’s third administration. With Spencer Compton Cavendish (1833-1908), Marquess of Hartington, later the 8th Duke of Devonshire, he formed the breakaway Liberal Unionist Party. [Chamberlain was its leader in the House of Commons and Cavendish was its leader in the House of Lords.] During the Unionist Government (1895-1905), a parliamentary coalition of the Conservative Party and Liberal Unionist Party, Chamberlain served as Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1895 to 1903 in the cabinet of Lord Salisbury, whom he had formerly opposed. This meant he was in office during the Second Boer War (1899-1902), during which the British Empire conquered and annexed two Afrikaans-speaking Dutch colonial republics, the South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State, after the Boers discovered gold at Witwatersrand in the South African Republic. By different wives, he fathered Sir Joseph Austen Chamberlain (1863-1937), who has Foreign Secretary (1924-1929), helped negotiate the Locarno Pact in 1925, which garnered him a knighthood and the Nobel Peace Prize; and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940), who is best remembered for his appeasement policy vis-à-vis Nazi Germany.