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This ‘People’s Palace’ seems overdressed

Maybe it’s because Birmingham, England is known for a labyrinth of highways so convoluted that it resembles a plate of spaghetti, but the intricate metalwork jacketing the city’s new library brings fettuccine to mind.

The new Library of Birmingham, designed by Dutch architect Francine Houben of Mecanno Architecten
Photography: Christian

The mass of metalwork also conjures up trusses and scaffolding that create another impression. Though just opened, the library looks like it’s still under construction.

Either way, the bedecking that overspreads the exterior looks messy.

So far, my impressions come only from a virtual tour of the place, mission statements by the Dutch architect Francine Houben, and an assortment of inside and outside photos. Maybe it looks better face to face.

Houben’s curly-hair-like filigree pattern of metal rings larding up the building’s surface is supposed to refer to Birmingham’s jewelry quarter. But you might not think jewelry when you see the filigree. You might think you need to wipe hair out of your eyes.

The metal wrap is also supposed to remind you of the craftsmanship of Birmingham’s steel industry. But to this writer, it’s a visual interference, and it follows you inside, where the filigree cast shadows on the floors of the reading rooms.

"I didn't want to make a brick building, because we needed a lot of light, but I didn’t want to make a glass building either," Houben told the press. "It's so beautiful to sit inside because of the reflections and the shadows, and the changing of the weather.”

Is it? Should the inside of a reading room have the distraction of intricate shadow patterns on its floor?

“Our dream is to create a ‘People’s Palace,’ Houben continued “inviting, welcoming, inspiring for all ages and backgrounds, one that entices passers-by to enter and embark on a journey of discovery.”

Sounds like she’d have library-goers focus on her design rather than on the books they come to read.

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