Francine Houben - Libraries are the Cathedrals of this Decennia

By Beverley Nielsen on Nov 15, 10 05:39 PM in Communication

"Libraries are the Cathedrals of this decennia", said Francine Houben speaking about her design for the new Library of Birmingham.

This was the third in the series of 'Design Built-In' lectures, held jointly by the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design and Aston University's School of Applied Science and Engineering Design attended by over 140 students and business people.

Some months back Prof Verganti of Politecnico di Milano said in the same lecture series that you innovate the meaning of things by "working through 'interpreters' - people with capacity to combine the 'big picture' with profound insights at company level."

Francine Houben, architect and director Mecanoo, and designer of the new Library of Birmingham is just such an interpreter.

"I have been coming to Birmingham for two years, but this is the first time I have spoken about it," she said. "I am struck by the colour, diversity and energy of the City and its people... For me, Birmingham is a city of incidents and ideas with a proud industrial heritage."

Francine's global experience combined with her unique vision of Birmingham and our place will, I believe, help us to recreate ourselves.

By looking anew at what we have achieved (and more often than not taken for granted) she will help us recognise afresh the wealth of creativity combined in our past and present. Perhaps, I hope, giving us renewed confidence about ourselves and our culture as we shape a dynamic and vibrant future.

Francine Houben is a remarkable woman by anyone's standards. Appointed the first Professor of Architecture in Holland and a Visiting Professor, Harvard during 2007, she has received many honorary Awards in recognition of her talents including - Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year 2008, Honorary Fellow, RIBA UK, as well as Honorary Fellow, Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and the American Institute of Architects.

She describes her work as, "warm, human, playful, using beauty and light, colour and strong materials... For me architecture is not a purely intellectual or conceptual game. In the end the result should touch all the senses."

Her practice employs 90 people providing services covering architecture, urbanism, interior design, restoration and landscaping.

She does not believe she has a style as such - a perspective associated with many of our most famous architects of the past century - but rather a set of principles, amounting to a philosophy or form of expression, guiding her approach to design including, "a love of nature, handwriting and language, composition of empty space, analysis and intuition, arrangement of form and emotion, with a focus on durability - making things that will last."

When Francine first visited Birmingham she bought a guide book to the UK which had two pages on Birmingham - not much, she felt, to reflect the UK's greatest industrial city, poised to take advantage of the emerging knowledge economy with three respected universities hosting over 60,000 students. She bought a map of the city and started trying to walk the streets before realizing the map was intended soley for cars.

To get a feel for the city she started walking 'the red line' from the Rotunda where she always stays in Birmingham, up through Paradise Circus, Centenary Square (the site of the new Library) and onto the Canal District of the city and Broad Street.

"I noticed people were walking through the city but not stopping to enjoy the open spaces very much, not using them to socialize or relax.

"I wanted to bring a coherence to the City. Local historian and commentator, Carl Chinn, took me around the buildings and I observed the styles and materials being used, taking in something of the spirit of the city.

"I did not want to create a new glass box but a building growing out of and representing something of the essence of the city."

For example, Francine has reflected the industrial craftsmanship of the new Library's location on the site of the Cambridge Street Winfield Brass Works by incorporating a distinctive external steel filigree work that builds connections between past and present.

A further inspiration was St Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham "Inside light streaming through the windows created circular shadows building a dialogue between exterior and interior reflected in delicate tones of light and grey.

"It was clear to me that we should create a BREAM excellent building - quite a challenge...for example by installing mixed mode ventilation - natural and mechanical."

Francine spent a lot of time reflecting on the arrangement of the Library's functions with escalators taking people through the buildings' layers to new sources of knowledge and discovery.

The Children's Library will be located on the lower ground floor connecting to the new Music Amphitheatre outside the Library, hosting concerts - for example by the Citys' renowned Conservatoire and other musicians.

The entrance will enable access to both the new business and learning hub on the ground floor and connecting through to the REP, housing new dining facilities reflecting Francine's vision for the REP to become the 'social hub' of the city.

Level 2 will house the extensive Reader Service collections. "I imagine a lot of student's working in this area and I have created many different spaces for sitting and working with laptops and books alongside the window...For example looking over the city as the Library is located on one of the highest points in Birmingham."

A new Gallery and Terrace will be located on level 3, including a small restaurant and café and a separate Research Area. "I also noticed the city was built on a gently rolling landscape with much greenery. I wanted to create more green opportunity in the city through rooftop gardens in the new Library."

Archive collections will be housed in a rotunda structure rising upwards to the top floor with external imagery reflecting some of the inspirational source material contained in the 3 million photographic images and over 6,000 archive collections.

As outlined in an earlier blog, the Library's Shakespeare Collection includes the first Folio Edition of Shakespeare's works, published in 1623, worth an estimated £3-4m. Sitting alongside the Library's collection are those of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust- if connected digitally this would represent a huge cultural resource, unequalled anywhere else in the world.

For Francine this piece de resistance is highlighted in her 'Shakespeare Memorial', sitting atop the building, crown-like and coated in gold, with a central opening providing a view to the heavens above - a dramatic touch that perhaps even Shakespeare might have appreciated!

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