Leading Birmingham property agent John Griffiths argues that the time for prevarication over the future of the Central Library is over.
The debate on the listing of the current Central Library should be drawing to a close soon – surely? The ongoing discussion has been played out in the Birmingham Post (and of course in the city’s bars and restaurants). Some of the debate has been sadly ill-informed – not least the alarming number of people questioned in your own daily Pen Portrait column who seem to think that the debate is about whether we have a library at all! This debate is now so long-running, as is the wait for the decision from the Government on the right to demolish, that there is now a risk of the fundamental issues behind the proposed demolition being forgotten.
Whilst there are a small number of people who believe the brutalist style of architecture represented by the library is worthy of retention, I am not one of them. I have lived in Birmingham all of my life and, while some of the city’s buildings have inspired me, this is not one of them. I don’t often find myself agreeing with Prince Charles on matters architectural and I am personally a fan of the modern and contemporary rather than pastiche style of architecture, but to me the Central Library simply isn’t a good quality example. Should every city be forced to retain at least one style of building from its past, even if of questionable quality? If that is the case, a city like Birmingham really will end up with a fairly miserable collection of low grade buildings from certain decades – doing nothing at all for many of the fine historic buildings and some of the marvellous modern structures being developed today.
Putting my own views to one side, however, there is one absolutely vital factor that simply cannot be ignored in considering the merits for demolishing the Library – and that is the adverse impact that its retention would have on the future economic prosperity of the city.
Birmingham is renowned for its ability to regularly re-invent itself. It has repeatedly been doing this every 30 or so years. Roughly speaking, once in every generation, Birmingham has risen to the social and economic challenges and has come out fighting. Many UK cities have had to face up to similar challenges, but few can have embraced change in such a positive way as Birmingham. For me, it is the willingness of the citizens of Birmingham and the capacity of the place to embrace change that is at the very heart of the city.
In recent years, the ability and willingness to change has been in spite of the physical constraints imposed by the poor decisions of the 1960s. The ‘concrete collar’ was a legacy that has hampered regeneration in the past – but a very positive aspect of this era was the incredibly compact development of sites within the city core. From a dense and high quality core, the city can now continue to grow outwards beyond the old concrete collar. To see the remarkable changes in the city over the past 15 years, we need look no further than the remarkable successes of Brindleyplace and The Mailbox – both developments of international standing.
But where the ring-road represented a temporary barrier to progress and growth, there was never any prospect of that barrier becoming permanent through listing or conservation status. The same cannot be said for the Central Library. This structure lies at a critical point in the city centre – positioned as a consequence of the 1960s road layout, but developed in the 1970s, it now forms a major blockage to the long-term strategic growth of the central core. If this building were in London, it could happily sit there as a monument to indifferent brutalist architecture, housing one of the capital’s many publicly-funded galleries or museums. It could co-exist alongside a rapidly growing 21st century city without having any adverse impact. Its scale would be inconsequential to the thousands of acres of prime real estate. For Birmingham the same cannot be said. Even remarkable Victorian gems struggle to attract viable uses and funding. We simply don’t have the same range of nationally/internationally funded civic facilities to be able to support the non-commercial use of buildings. But even if that funding existed, it would not be right to direct it at a building whose form and position represents such an impermeable barrier to the long-term strategic growth of the city.
The Central Library was built at the edge of the city centre and so its scale and presence was not an issue when originally planned. It was in stark contrast to the beautifully crafted Town Hall and Council House, but as long as the city could turn its back on the grotesque form, it did not impose a threat to Birmingham’s vitality. Fortunately for us all, the city has grown, but at its heart lies an unloved concrete carbuncle that must not be allowed to dictate the way in which our city progresses. This building has cast a shadow for long enough. It is time for it to release its wonderful Shakespearian archive to a modern new environment and bow out gently stage left!
n John is a director of GBR property consultants