Library of Birmingham - Nathan Spencer

The Library of Birmingham: Reference Works

'As part of Reference Works four emerging artists, graduates or students from Birmingham City University, were selected to participate in the Mentoring Programme. This professional development opportunity was linked to the four lead artists’ practice and intentions for this commission. In addition to the more traditional learning outcomes, the mentoring sought to contribute to the emerging artists’ professional development by offering and financially supporting the making and exhibiting of new work. The mentored artists were Mihaela Calin, Andre de Jong, Anne Pawlak and Nathan Spencer. The exhibition of their work was held at Space 35, in the new Park Side Building, Birmingham City University.

The commission was led by the Library of Birmingham Photography Department which has a successful record commissioning contemporary photography, curating exhibitions, developing private and public sector partnerships and managing the institution’s massive historical photography archive'

It was a great privilege to work on a project with the freedom to photograph the largest building of its kind in Europe. From the start of the project my approach has focused on the new development, attempting to capture the architectural characteristics within the design. The main inspiration for making the work came from the architect’s inspirations and thought processes behind designing the new Library of Birmingham.

‘The Library of Birmingham is a transparent glass building. The delicate, metal skin in the form of circles is inspired by the artisan tradition of this once industrial city. The eight circular spaces in the building, the rotundas, play an important role in the routing throught the libuary. They also provide natural light and ventilation. The rotunda on the roof houses the Shakespeare Memorianl Room designed in 1882.’ (Dutch Mountins, Mecanoo Architecten).

While studying at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design I came across Perry Roberts work entitled ‘Transitions’. These images focused on the ‘brutalist’ architectural exterior of buildings in Birmingham, like the ‘Jury’s Inn Hotel’, ‘Birmingham Central Library’ and the ‘Davenports Brewery Extension’. Roberts captured a series of stop-motion video’s that document the changes in sunlight throughout the day, using a composition that captured ‘abstract’ like aspects of each buildings exterior. In the foreword to the book ‘Perry Roberts Transition’, his work is explained as showing:

‘The formal qualities, the configurations of lines and shapes on these skins stretched over supporting internal structures are eloquent, very telling through their modernist references. The grids, the pre-fab repetitions, the “abstract” vernaculars – these all suggest a kind of certainty supposed to come with science and mathematics.’ (IKON: ‘Transitions’, Jonathan Watkins, 2006)

What I found interesting is how these eloquent architectural repetitions and grids create photogenic two-dimensional patterns within imagery. I tried to capture some of the same architectural qualities while photographing the New Library of Birmingham.

One of the many design features of the library are the eight ‘Rotundas’ positioned through the centre of the building. It became clear as I explored the building that these areas would form the main focus of the project, as these spaces play an important role with the movement of people throughout the building while also providing ventilation and natural light.

The circular exterior is the main aspect of the architecture that distinguishes the appearance of the building. From researching the design I learnt how the metal skin was inspired by Birmingham’s industrial history and the gas towers located not far from the site that carry the same complex metal structure. The challenge was how to photograph such a modern recognizable exterior in a way that captured the industrial history that inspired the design. One of the images captures the corner of a concrete car park against the libraries modern exterior. The contrast between these buildings shows the vast differences between the designs, while the concrete pays homage to the structure of the previous library.

While exploring the new library I notice the vast areas dedicated to storing the city’s extensive archive collection. The rows of aisles and multitude of empty shelving that electronically slide parallel to one another, creates an architecture that signifies the international importance of the libraries archive and collection.

The word ‘architecture’ can be defined as having two very similar meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word as ‘the art or science of designing and constructing buildings’. It then interestingly, gives another definition as ‘the conceptual structure and logical organization of a computer system’. I find this second definition is interesting because is talks about ‘architecture’ out of the context of a building. It focuses more on the concepts and logics behind a different structure and organization. This shows that the word ‘architecture’ is also used to describe the ‘conceptual structure and logical organization’ of a system. It is these organizations, structures and systems that I have tried to capture within my images.

Much thought has gone into the way the buildings services are organized to navigate the libraries design but these areas are often covered and hidden from public view. The three images composed looking directly up at the underlying utilities capture these areas in a way that highlights their importance for the building to operate and function, and attempt to show architecture from the perspective of its alternative definition.


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