Mecanoo's design could bring excitement to the city centre

In 2004, Birmingham City Council shelved an inspired competition-winning design for a new central library by Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners. So can we now expect a dowdy municipal hulk to match the particularly wretched collection of post-war buildings that populate the city centre?

True enough, the council has steered clear of another architectural competition and gone for the safer approach of competitive interviews. But the result so far is encouraging: the council’s selection panel of 10 plumped unanimously for the avant-garde Dutch architect Mecanoo, virtually unknown in this country, rather than Foster, Hopkins of Foreign Office Architects.

Even more encouraging is a quick scamper through Mecanoo’s track record, and listening to comments by its founding principal, Francine Houben. Never having visited Birmingham before, she’s dismayed by the city centre’s tyranny of roads and submerged railway lines. “We traced a long line of hard spaces from the Bull Ring past the site to the canal. So we want to make something softer, with greener spaces that connect to Centenary Square.”

What could she mean? Well, Mecanoo’s only completed library was landed with a not dissimilar site – the brutalist 1960s campus of Delft Technical University. And the architect’s surprising solution? To create a library in the shape of a green hillock, all clothed in real natural grass.

Even within Birmingham City Council, there’s no great love for Centenary Square, which is vast and, despite featuring a random assortment of sculptures, peculiarly unengaging. “The whole square needs to be revitalised,” says the council’s urban designer, Philip Singleton. “What we need is a frontispiece to what will be a major new building, a bit like a piazza in front of a medieval cathedral.”

So what can we expect from Mecanoo’s design? Firstly, a huge public library that engages with the potential of internet information. Secondly a library that merges with the existing Repertory Theatre to create what Houben calls “a social heart” of the city. And not least, a building that is half landscape flowing into and colonising Centenary Square.

How these disparate elements will fuse together in a finished building is anyone’s guess. But if any city needs a shot of architectural excitement, it’s Birmingham.