Monday, March 31, 2008

Give that wrecking ball a rest

Birmingham Central Library and the devastating legacy of Birmingham's planning department

I'm 31 and if I was a building in Birmingham my hours would most certainly be counted. Although it's a well know fact that the Luftwaffe was behind the city's loss of much of its history, it's also true that Brum's planners have been just as lethal for at least three generations, raising to the ground anything with a potential for architectural legacy. Decent or not, anything approaching four decades and the wrecking balls are summoned in.

These days, the clock is ticking for John Madin's Central Library on Victoria Square. Legendary Jackie from BM&AG dug up the picture above left. Look how new the Library looked in the 1970s. There's little debate over the fact that it doesn't exactly fit in with the surrounding Town Hall and the Art Gallery. But the damage was done when the old library was knocked down and, like it or not, its 1973 replacement is a significant statement of its time, i.e. modernist and brutalist architecture which translated into reaching out for new forms and spaces. Simply, the Library has been left to rot for the past two decades. Its concrete clad been left to grey, much needed maintainance work was neglected and the site just to the north of the library (as you go through the glass doors) looks like Ceaucescu's Romania with added eau-de-piss. Quite cunning then for the Council to talk about a Library that look "old" and "unfit " for the 21st century. "It stands in the way of regenerating the city centre", said Council leader Micke Whitby.

However, John Madin's library had the merit of placing culture at the heart of Birmingham, in the crucial intersection between Centenary Square and Victoria Square. Aside from one of the largest libraries in Europe, the John Madin's building is home to a Conservatoire, a concert hall, as well as the Birmingham School of Acting. The Council is on a mission to knock it all down, replaced by -surprise surprise- yet another commercial development, and no it's not a joke.
Spurred by Prince Charles' comments that the Central Library looks crap (that from a man who likes to dress up to go and kill foxes), Birmingham City Council appear overly keen to sell the (prime) location to a developers and build the library elsewhere. Against the profit-laden proposal, there are organisations like English Heritage and the Twentieth Century Society, both of which recommended the library be listed. The final word will be issued by Culture Minister Margaret Hodge, under pressure to decide whether the building should be retained or not.
In the meantime, as we cross our fingers against yet another gigantic building site sitting at the heart of the city, we turned our questions to Alan Clawley, the Secretary of pro-listing Friends of the Central Library.

"The Council remains intent on demolishing the existing Central Library" he told us, "but it can't do so until a new library is opened as it must maintain continuity of service. They say this will happen in 2013".

Why do you think the Central Library is worth saving?

"It's a fully operational purpose-designed library that is only 35 years old. It has great architectural merit and was considered worthy of listing by English Heritage in 2003. Demolishing it and building a new one will emit a large amount of Carbon Dioxide. Retaining it will emit none, as it was emitted during its construction. The Library is very popular with users and in a good location".

Mike Whitby recently went on record as saying he would try to overturn any decision to approve listed building status. If the Council can do that anyway, what is the point in waiting for Ms Hodge's decision?

"The Minister for Culture Margaret Hodge is at present deciding whether to grant the City Council a Certificate of Immunity from Listing for the existing building. If she does then no application for Listing can be made for the next 5 years. If she does not, then the Library is automatically listed and the City Council will have to apply for Listed Building Consent if it wants to demolish it. This will give the public the opportunity to have its say like in a planning application. There could even be a Public Planning Inquiry".

How much public support have the Friends of Birmingham Central Library gathered on the issue?

"The letters in the Birmingham Post that are not from official sources invariably support the retention of the Library. There is also international interest from the architectural profession and we have the support of the influential London-based Twentieth Century Society. There are those who don't like the way it looks but we say thats not a good enough reason to demolish it and build a new one for a minimum cost of £193 million".

Why is there such widespread hostility towards post-war modernist buildings? Isn't this urge to demolish exactly what people regret the most about the Fifties? see our recent article about Birmingham's current demolition frenzy

"One can only guess here. Many people seem to want shiny new buildings rather than those that show signs of ageing. Concrete does weather badly but it can be cleaned or even painted. Public buildings built in the 60s and early 70s suffered from the economic recession and public spending cuts soon after they were built and have been badly neglected since. I suspect that the Library is too stong a presence for many people who prefer either the blandness or the supeficial showiness of post-modernism. Prince Charles encouraged public hostility to modern buildings but I am not sure that his traditional taste in architecture would be any more popular".

How many more Shopping Malls does Birmingham City Centre need??? Isn't it telling that a cultural building of such scale was built right in the middle of the city and now they want to replace it with yet another symbol of profit?

"The proposals for Paradise Circus are not at all clear, except that it would include Grade A offices. The only property developer we know who is interested is Gary Taylor of Argent plc who seems to want to build a Brindleyplace Mark Two on the site.
The Council is determined to build a "world-class" library as part of a re-modelled Repertory Theatre on the Car Park in Centenary Square. They have just drawn up a short list of famous architects who want to design it. We think the site is too small. Four floors will have to be underground to get everything in. The concept of combining a theatre with a library was dreampt up by the Council and the Rep to give the illusion of having more space to play with, but it makes little sense otherwise".


Anonymous said...

I've read people whining about the shops inside Paradise forum, but I personally don't see what the problem is. Is it that they're not all swanky and 5-star??? Do we want to price our kids out with a load of Harvey Nicholls and Armani shops???

Is it that there's a McDonald's in there? Gimme a break, can you think of one corner of Brum without a McDonald's???
Why pick on this very one?

One thing I will say, Paradise forum and the library are very popular sites and always very busy.


Anonymous said...

that's a load of bullshit.
the place isn't popular at all. It's just that it's there in a strategic part of Brum, it's very central, so people walk through it. You're not gonna argue that people love the architecture of New St station because hordes of people, thousands and thousands, catch their train from New St every day, are you?