Saturday, 23 November 2013

Win tickets for the 2013 Birmingham International Tattoo

Win Tickets for the 2013 Birmingham International Tattoo

Sunday 1 December 2013 - 2.00 pm

 Doors open at 12.30pm

The NIA, Birmingham

win four tickets

With over 1,200 performers, Britain’s biggest indoor military tattoo will bring together marching bands, gymnasts, dog display teams, field gun and many other performers to the NIA in Birmingham.

Answer the following question:

A tattoo features music from (a) Goth punk genre (b) Welsh male voice choirs or (c) military

Email answers to by Wednesday 27th November 2013 2pm

Birmingham's new library. Academic inspiration gave me none.

Never mind the escalators ...give us the books 

I finally got around to visiting Birmingham's new library in Centenary Square this afternoon with my 11 year old daughter.

I went with an open mind, despite the worthy arguments I have read in the past few years about keeping the old central library open and refurbishing it, also the fact that Mike Whitby's Tory/Liberal council had pressed on with building this £189 million glorified art sculpture when they knew full well that Birmingham's finances were on the edge of a precipice it has subsequently tumbled over. Charities and community groups losing their 'supporting people' funding from March 2014 were recently told, it's either street lighting or support for vulnerable people and the Council has decided on street lights.

I'm certainly no philistine when it comes to arty modern architecture either, personally I think that the new library does look great at night and sits well next to the bright lights of the ICC and the Rep. So I can see why it might have caught the eye of the media recently with the likes of the New York Times advising Americans to try Brum, alongside wide shots of Centenary Square. However, call me an old traditional but I thought the function of a library was for people to read, study and learn in, not to be the £189 million West Midlands version of the George Pompidou Centre.

My visit to 'the library' today was very disappointing for two main reasons. Firstly inclusion, right from the wholly inadequate revolving front door which took about 10 minutes just to get into the place, to the inaccessible layered children's amphitheatre. How can any local authority in the year 2013, 18 years after the Disability Discrimination Act, think that a live reading and performance area with layers of platforms but no ramped access to them be even vaguely acceptable?

A disgrace, though not I guess a surprising one given Mike Whitby's horse blinkered rush to leave his own mark next to Sir Dick Knowles' far more visionary yet inclusive Convention Centre.

From the front door onwards, the experience of the new library was like a futuristic cattle market as a long procession of soulless looking drones made our dreary way up and down escalators in search of academic inspiration. After 15 minutes we gave up looking for it and took our chances with the big wheel and the German market instead.

The second thing I want from a library is functionality. Books, maps, resources, exhibitions, photos, ok yes computers (very useful and I'm no luddite either), desks, chairs, study spaces and friendly library staff to help you when you can't find what you want. What is striking about the new library is the absence of most of the above. The old library may have been looking a bit shabby and threadbare in recent years and most of us wouldn't have argued too much with Prince Charles's description of the outside as looking like a bunker for the burning of books. But in it's defence it did have an abundance of  ...well, 'books', ample quiet study space and relevantly sign posted floors and departments. 

Whenever I see the sign 'discovery area' I immediately think of that little area they have in the larger MacDonald's restaurants where unsupervised kids stamp on bright lights on the floor and the management throw in a few pamphlets about the environment. The same was done when they dismantled the old Science Museum and hung the beautiful old Spitfire over the James Watt steam engine and the great old locomotive, completely taking away the context of every item for the visitor and the space to enjoy them. The modern concept seems to be to cram as many gimmicks into a small a space as possible and call it a discovery area. But discover what? You're prone to claustrophobia and a short fuse?  

Could £50 million not have cheered the old library up and made it look less like a concrete bunker whilst keeping its useful library-like functionality rather than spending three times that on creating a glass monument to Mike Whitby with a few books scattered here and there and staff behind desks whose body language would have made them into great extras in the video Where did you get that blank expression on your face? by The Specials.

In fairness, the spin-off cattle market from the German market and the article in the New York Times may have clouded my experience of Lord Bearwood's barbed wire bedecked tribute to Crystal Palace and I am sure there will be those at the new library who will want to tell us that books are becoming obsolete and electronic technology is the only road ahead.  But in which case, why spend £189 million building a bloody library? Couldn't it all have gone online and that way the city could have continued to employ the 100 staff that they made redundant last year to upload what is after all the tax payer's property, but for a fraction of the cost? 

One feature I did enjoy in the new library was the brightly coloured room in the front reception area where lost and forgotten books have been turned into art sculptures. Clearly the commissioning officer who came up with that idea had a very subtle sense of satire which may just have gone over the heads of her or his seniors.  

Rather like the Emperor's New Clothes, for me the new library has been found out. It looks great nestled behind the big wheel at Winterval, the rooftop garden is probably nice if you are determined enough to find it, but I wouldn't have too much confidence in finding and borrowing such a thing as a book.


Anonymous said...

I happened to also visit for the first time this afternoon.

With regards to cost, if I may draw a comparison to the Olympics - an extremely costly project at a time of cut backs for most people and criticized no end before the event. But then people saw it, and the vast majority admitted that actually they enjoyed it, and it was all in all, a good thing. I think there's an argument for the odd big project during a period of 'austerity' because it can actually have more impact at a time when all people are hearing about is what they can't have anymore. As for your point about libraries being for reading and studying, not as a piece of arty modern architecture - I say, why not both!?

My dad did get quite a lot amusement from watching the revolving door jam every 10 seconds and clogging the system up, but in fairness this was due to people overcrowding the compartments in the door and pushing the door which only makes it worse. And yes at times it was little cattle like - but this is on a Saturday afternoon not too far from Christmas, only a few weeks after the library has opened - it is dealing with a huge number of people that will in time calm down.

We spent about 5 hours in the library today and only just managed to see all the levels, I wasn't bored once. If you could only be bothered to spend 15 minutes in there searching for 'academic inspiration' then you didn't try very hard! Perhaps this explains why you didn't find what you were looking for? Maybe I can fill you in, You can’t have possibly seen even a fraction of what was to offer in that amount of time. Were you looking for books? They had plenty, old and new. Computers? Loads. Study areas? A lot, and being well used too. Both private rooms and open areas with fantastic views over Birmingham. You say “the rooftop garden is probably nice" Well yeah- I actually bothered to go there and it is very nice! I realised I’d never actually had the chance to look at a view of the city from a height before, and this must be because there are few if any publicly available viewing spaces. The other rooftop garden is great too. And the Shakespeare memorial room. And all the other bits you couldn't be bothered with! If you are to post you opinion about a place could you at least have the decency of looking round it all?!

Maybe £50 million could have spruced up the old library, but I’d prefer not to plough so much money into a building which is well past its sell by date, and instead spend more on something that is so beneficial to Birmingham. I suppose it is a matter of opinion, but I found the old one so depressing - low ceilings and long looming corridors getting darker and darker because of the complete lack of windows on the outside, relying on artificial strip lighting everywhere.

Lastly, maybe it was a massive ego trip for Mike Whitby, but I don't care, because that's how city architecture has always been- places trying to outdo each other with their bigger, fancier town halls etc for years, and if it creates better more impressive buildings then I don't mind. If it helps- I doubt a lot of people know who Mike Whitby is now, so I don’t think we will all be crediting the building to him years from now. Also you suggest it could all just have gone online and forget any of this - really? I don't believe you'd actually prefer that.

I hope and presume your daughter isn't concerned with issues of expenditure and austerity at age 11, so I say take her again once the crowds have died down, and if she isn't impressed by the views over the city, or the sheer number and variety of books, or by travelling up all the escalators, or by the charming illustrations decorating the dividing walls, or by the areas with bean bags and kid friendly swivel chairs, or by the screens which react to your arm gestures, or by the old fashioned Shakespeare room, (I could go on) then she must be a hard girl to please!

Spaghetti Editor said...

Thanks for your comments. I will go back when its quieter perhaps and see if you are right. But as someone else commented to me "it seems a lot of fabric and very little substance". I'll just give one example, I used to love floor six at the old library, a great space full of books and photos and maps on local and family history. There were reading devices, loads of staff, different sections, etc. I looked at the equivalent department in the new library and its massively diminished. A few computers, which most people have access to at home anyway and about 5% of the books they had in the old library on the same subject. What the new library are making a big thing about is that greater access is being given to the archives online through sites like Ancestry and Genes Reunited. So my point being, they could have done that without spending nearly 200 million pounds on the arty building full of escalators.

Spaghetti Editor said...

I'm not suggesting everything goes online, I agree many people need support to access information online but what I would advocate is access at local libraries in local communities.