Rise of the super library: From Birmingham to the world

Biblioteca Vasconcelos Mexico's Biblioteca Vasconcelos holds 580,000 books on a towering steel structure hanging from its walls

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As the £189m Library of Birmingham opens its doors, it joins a new breed of international "super library".

Architecture, design and technology are changing the way the library functions as a space. They have evolved to reflect modern attitudes to books, and how people consume the written word.

With The Culture Show architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff, BBC Arts explores five of the world's most impressive public libraries.

Seattle Central Library, USA 2004

Seattle Central Library OMA designed the library to recognise traditional books and the digital world

The 11-storey glass and steel building, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus, holds a collection of one million items across 10,000 bookshelves. And it has capacity for 450,000 more.

The centrepiece of the £105m ($165m) building is the "book spiral". This continuous series of shelves winds up over four floors, displaying the library's entire non-fiction collection in a single space.

Seattle Central Library Seattle has one million items across 10,000 shelves

It was designed so the Dewey Decimal System of classification would not be split around different sections of the building.

The library embraces the digital age with more than 400 public computer terminals.

"Seattle's new library was the first in recent decades to really grapple with the internet-driven revolutions taking place within publishing, the media and learning," says Tom Dyckhoff.

"Architects OMA, true to their reputation, rethought the library from first base, treating old and new media as equal in a continuous 'book spiral' of reading rooms and 'in-between spaces'."

Biblioteca Vasconcelos, Mexico 2007

Biblioteca Vasconcelos There are 60,000 plants in the surrounding gardens of Biblioteca Vasconcelos

The 38,000 sq m building was designed by Mexican architect Alberto Kalach to combine a public library with a botanical garden.

The next chapter for libraries

Michael Rosen

As many of Britain's smaller libraries face the axe, author Michael Rosen explores their future in Our Libraries: The Next Chapter on Radio 4.

"For hundreds of years we looked on libraries as places which hold a treasury of the most important ideas we have," says Rosen.

"In the modern era this notion, which only really applied to a literate elite, expanded to include us all.

"Recently, this idea has come under threat from two sources: Lack of public money to support the spaces, and the digital revolution which seems to divert attention away from the physical book.

"I would hold to the view that a decline in what libraries can offer is a loss to democracy.

"These are free spaces to read, meet and access whatever we need in terms of information, debate, ideas and the expression of feeling."

The grounds hold 168 different species of native plants - intended as a relief from the pollution and surrounding urban sprawl of Mexico City.

The building itself houses 580,000 books on hanging steel shelving. It has music and multimedia rooms, and a 500-seat auditorium.

It was dedicated to Mexican philosopher and politician José Vasconcelos, but is nicknamed the Megabiblioteca because of its size.

At its centre is the sculpture Mobile Mátrix by Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco - an 11m long whale skeleton decorated with graphite.

"This library has something of the glass-house about it," says Dyckhoff.

"Only formed not of delicate steel or iron, but hulking columns of concrete in a long structural grid of fins, tilted façade planes and louvres, which shade the windows behind.

"Inside is particularly impressive, with a vast atrium the length of the building, lit by windows along the length and above from the ceiling.

"Its book stacks and reading terraces are housed on a monumental open steel-framed structure, hung from the walls."

Kanazawa Umimirai, Japan 2011

Kanazawa Umimirai, The 6000 round windows create a soft diffused light throughout the reading room

Six thousand small round windows dot the four exterior walls of this giant box. The translucent glass diffuses daylight into a reading room that covers the entire ground floor.

The concrete walls are designed to bear the seismic force of earthquakes. But Japan's Coelacanth K&H Architects also wanted them to allow a soft interior light reminiscent of a forest - giving a feeling of outdoor space.

Kanazawa Umimirai The concrete walls bear the force of earthquakes

Traditionally libraries in Japan have functioned as places for lending out books, but designers Kazumi Kudo and Hiroshi Horiba created their building to encourage social interaction among the residents of Kanazawa.

"A community hub as much as a place for reading, the Kanazawa Umimirai was designed as a place whose architecture positively encourages you to stay and hang out," says Dyckhoff.

"Who wouldn't in a hall as beautiful as this, its 12m high box pricked with 6,000 glass holes, creating a twinkling interior. There's even a craft corner, for impromptu macramé breaks between books."

Spijkenisse Book Mountain, Netherlands 2012

Spijkenisse Book Mountain The books are tiered in a 'mountain' of shelves under a pyramid-like glass roof

Around 50,000 books are arranged on a single mass of tiered shelving below a glass roof in the 9,300 sq m Book Mountain at Spijkenisse, near Rotterdam.

It was designed by Dutch architects MVRDV to give visitors the impression of being in the open air.

A single 480m path winds its ways up to a reading room and cafe at the summit. The bookshelves, which are made from recycled flowerpots, are reached from stairs and platforms along the way.

Spijkenisse Book Mountain A path leads through the books to the mountain top

Natural ventilation and shades keep the temperature comfortable under the glass, while underfloor heating and double glazing retain warmth in winter.

The library's exterior is a nod to Spijkenisse's agricultural history.

"The Book Mountain is more of a hill, but none the less impressive for that," says Dyckhoff.

"The spiralling mound of book cases and terraces encased in a glass exterior whose shape, complete with chimney, somewhat obliquely nods to the archetypical Dutch farmhouse. Why? No idea. But at least it gets the punters in."

Library of Birmingham, UK 2013

Library of Birmingham An electronic tagging system allows staff to use 'wands' to search for books

Birmingham's new £189m library can accommodate 3,000 visitors, with 200 computers, theatres, an exhibition gallery and music rooms.

Nearly 350,000 of its 800,000 books are available to the public.

Inside is the magnificent Shakespeare Memorial Room. Originally built in 1882, it was removed piece by piece from the old library and rebuilt on the ninth floor of the current building.

Tom Dyckhoff

Designed by Dutch architects Mecanoo, the library has a roof garden with a wild flower meadow giving views over the city.

It also has a Victorian-style rotunda which visitors can glide through on a travelator straight to the fourth floor.

"It's hard to look past the Library of Birmingham's garish facade, but if there were ever a case of not judging a book by its cover, this is it," says Dyckhoff.

"The interior is a true people's palace, cavernous, generous, intriguing, beautifully made and a delight both to explore and spend all day with your nose buried in the latest Dan Brown."

The Culture Show: The People's Palace is on BBC Two at 22:00 BST on Tuesday 10th September.

Episode two of Our Libraries: The Next Chapter is on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 BST on Wednesday 11th September.

Both programmes are available afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

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