Birmingham Library’s rooftop gardens
by Drucilla James
Gleaming gold and enmeshed in a metal frieze of black and silver circles evoking the city’s industrial past, the new Library of Birmingham bestrides the central Centenary Square, part luxury ocean-going liner and part giant Lego construction in design. Inside blue-lit travelators ferry visitors up and down through cavernous book rotundas.
This strikingly different design by Dutch architects Mecanoo also includes three unique and distinctive roof gardens which encompass elaborately patterned parterres and potagers, undulating landscapes of grasses and flowers and wildflower meadows.
The Discovery Terrace: Level 3
Sitting atop the main entrance, a canopy forms a huge balcony garden with stunning views over the Square including a new amphitheatre where an annual wildflower meadow has been planted – part of a wildflower trail in the City’s Westside.
This terrace is conceived of as a formal garden – its pattern of huge tear drops and semi-circles has been inspired by both traditional knot gardens and the circles of the library’s façade.
Although, the setting is ultra-modern with Iroko clad seats and grey metallic walls, the planting echoes the past with frames of box (buxus sempervirens) laid out with aromatic plants and herbs.
The 3, 500 plants in the scheme ensure these are gardens for all seasons. Bulbs such as Tulipa ‘Burgundy’ and Allium giganteum are set to bloom in Spring along with the Prunus sargentii trees (cherry).Herbs – Thymus citriodorus, Origanum vulgare , Myrrhis odorata (cicely), Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’ ( sage) -will flower in summer together with country- garden style plants such as Scabiosa lucida and Dianthus ‘Chetwyn Doris’. In autumn, the flowers of Helichrysum italicum (curry plant) will appear with the stunning autumn colours of the cherry trees and the Chinese witch hazel. Evergreen herbs such as Lavandula angustifolia ( lavender) , Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) and thymus cultivars will brighten up the winter with their green hues, beside the Hamamellis mollis trees (Chinese witch hazel) with their sunshine-yellow winter flowers.
A selection of planters is also reserved for edible gardening. Raspberries, gooseberries, courgettes, salad leaves, peppers, carrots, and cabbage appear here, together with fruit trees – Prunus ‘Pandora’ and Malus domestica ‘Discovery’and fruiting bushes – Chaenomeles sup. ‘Jet Trail’ and Ribes rubrum ‘Stanza’. This produce will be harvested and used in the Library kitchens.
The Secret Garden: Level 7
Reached by a glass elevator which travels upwards through the central rotunda, this roof terrace is intended to be a natural garden – a hidden green oasis in the city. Paths wind through domed beds to circular- shaped seating areas which create enclosed intimate spaces – something very welcome in this more exposed setting. From this eyrie you can enjoy views across the towers of Birmingham’s cityscape, from the whirling and curving splendours of its Victorian past to the geometric pinnacles of modernity.
The 5,500 plants up here include a wide variety of evergreen groundcover plants creating a carpet varied in flower, leaf colour and leaf texture which also protects and ‘holds’ the soil. One, Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ has special leaf colour; others include Vinca minor and Ajuga reptans.
Grasses – Luzula nivea (snowy woodrush), Festuca gautieri and Carex comans (sedge) combine in an undulating pattern with the groundcover plants . They are mixed too with bands of flowering perennials – Nepeta x faassenii, Campanula portenschlagiana, Alchemilla millefolium (Yarrow) Geranium macrorrhizum and Pulmonaria rubra which mark the seasonal changes in the garden together with bulbs Fritillaria meleagris,Galanthus nivalis and Iris reticulate.
The garden is designed to attract wildlife both through the planting of species attractive to birds and insects such as Verbena bonariensis, Agastache cana, Sedum spectabile and Buddleia alternifolia and by the siting of three bird boxes on each level and three insect boxes.
From the Secret Garden it is but a few steps to the inner sanctum of The Shakespeare Memorial Room on Level 9 in the uppermost golden layer of the building. The room comes from the City’s Victorian library designed by John Henry Chamberlain in 1882. The warm wood -panelled room blooms with flowers and foliage of a different kind created in intricate marquetry, glass and metalwork.
The Brown Roof Garden: Level 10
A special wildflower meadow is sown on this roof garden which is not accessible to the public. It is hoped that over time other native species will colonise the roof.
Frosts Landscapes ( www.frostslandscapes.co.uk) who were responsible for the planting and now manage the on-going care of Levels 3 and 7 tell us that maintenance of the roof gardens is much the same as for any garden, with general weeding and tidying, plant care and looking out for disease and damage. These gardens do though have an automatic watering system which has to be checked to ensure there is no over- or under-watering.
The growing medium is specially made for this roof project and weighs less than normal soil to reduce the load on the roof.