The city council can still go ahead with a new library without razing the Central Library to the ground. Instead it should get rid of the buildings around it, says Birmingham Post blogger Jon Bounds
I love the Central Library. There, I’ve said it. The way the storeys fold out above you like some impossible stack of books, each larger and more crammed with knowledge than the last, is a view of wonder, a triumph of design and engineering over gravity.
John Madin’s work on the building is a fine example of what was good about modernist architecture, a shape unyielding to its surroundings innovative in design and form, but it’s difficult to see it in its best light.
I’m not referring to the bad press it attracts from royalty, and city planning royalty in Clive Dutton, but to the way it’s closed in on all sides by blocky squares without the interest or beauty of this design masterpiece.
The caretaker at the Hanging Gardens of Babylon no doubt sullied the structure by erecting a little lean-to potting shed to keep his tools in and to snooze in while listening to Test Match Special, and the library attracted other structures like so many outbuildings. The council want us to be able to see the Town Hall, they think the library cramps it – but the beauty of the library is similarly cramped by buildings with very little architectural merit.
It’s often said that the whole ‘paradise’ development (and yes, we can all see the irony when in the darkened underpass) cuts one side of the city centre off from the other. People do see the divide as an effort to cross, it’s where ‘town’ becomes ‘Broad Street’, the council is always keen to have events and focus in Centenary Square and these can be sparsely attended on occasion. The temptation is always to build. If the Central Library is demolished, another building will take its place, as the sale of the land to help fund the new library building is likely. Knocking down one building and erecting another building in its place (very probably one the public will have no occasion to use, as it won’t be a library that’s for sure) won’t solve either problem.
So, let’s open it up – and knock every bit of Paradise Circus down, apart from the library.
Get rid of the Copthorne Hotel, Adrian Boult Hall, Paradise Place, and leave a great expansive ‘city space’ with the Central Library and the Town Hall at one end, the new library and ICC at the other. A wonderful square showcasing marvellous Birmingham history and architecture, it would have Baskerville house on it, and The Mailbox and the building replacing the old Central TV studios within sight too.
We’d have a huge place for shows, gatherings, and meetings; tree-ringed, with maybe a couple of European-style kiosk cafés in the centre. We’d have the makings of a wonderful centre-point of our cultural renaissance: Town and Symphony halls, new library, the Rep, the Museum and Art Gallery, and the space to relax and enjoy them. There’s a good chance that the 2018 World Cup will be awarded to England, with matches surely at Villa Park and maybe a new Birmingham City stadium, where better to gather the travelling fans to show off Birmingham at its best? Many of the great European cities we’re competing with have such focal points: Barcelona has Plaza de Cataluña, Amsterdam has Dam Square, Paris has seemingly nothing else but civic square after civic square linked by quaint side streets.
Let the council build their new library, we can use the old one for something else. It doesn’t seem ideal for offices or living space, but it was designed as a storage facility so let it house our older books, records, maybe even some of the local history collections that don’t have space in the museum. Paradise Forum (the open atrium inside that is wasted by it needing to be a thoroughfare) becomes a huge contemporary art space, the new library is a digital library with swathes of electronic access to whatever the future can bring.
Of course this would cost, and there are problems of re-routing the road system, but this is where the vision of our city planners and civic leaders can come in. It must be cheaper to knock some of the surrounding buildings down, rather than the whole area. However difficult the building is to maintain, and however much care it has been missing, renovation is possible. Think of how sensitively the Rotunda has been handled, it can be done and there wouldn’t be a shortage of firms willing to take on the job.
The vogue is towards ‘iconic’ buildings, but iconic status can’t be planned for with any degree of certainty. While Birmingham has taken Selfridges to its heart, Beetham Tower (“that shower curtain”) is unlikely to be shorthand for Brum any time soon, so why gamble on whatever is the designated replacement? We’ve got the icon right there, if we could see the brutalism for the concrete that surrounds it.
There are many arguments both for and against the building (I’ve collected some at http://del.icio.us/bounder/centrallibrary), and we need to have this discussion rather than sleepwalking into cultural vandalism – it’s a shame that our council won’t join in.