A new perspective on Birmingham

There was a gratifyingly intelligent discussion of architecture on the radio this morning, coinciding with the opening of the new Birmingham library. Much of it dealt with the contents of the building, and the treasures in the archive, which was perfectly appropriate.

But there was also talk about how it worked spatially, and how the new and adjacent older building were knitted together with giant escalators. What there was surprisingly little of was discussion of how the building actually looked, contravening the usual complaint that too much architectural criticism is just a beauty parade. Was this because it was on the radio? Did it reflect the fact that BD’s Ellis Woodman, in his lengthy discussion of the building, argued that the exterior was the least successful element?

The story also included an interview with the architect, Francine Houben of Mecanoo. When describing the terrace at the top of the building, she said how struck she was by the greenness of the city, and how she wanted to make the most of views of the hills around. Houben of course is Dutch, and they don’t have a lot of hills. Does it take a foreigner to see Birmingham as beautiful? Most natives are pretty negative about the city’s aesthetic qualities however fond they are of it. It reminded me of the way that Japanese practice Sanaa extolled the quality of light when designing the Louvre in Lens, another area that few residents find glorious.

We hear about the globalisation of architecture, and there is a fear that it is just fashion and snobbery that jets architects around the world. But sometimes the outsider can see more clearly. 


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