The Central Library - Should it stay or should it go?

Birmingham Central Library is far from a classic and it’s time it was flattened, says Arts Editor Terry Grimley.

What a dispiriting piece of news that English Heritage is once again recommending that Birmingham’s Central Library should be listed.

I’ve had my differences with the present council administration over its protracted attempts to build a replacement, but on this issue I’m behind it.

I might be more sympathetic to the preservationists if I had ever heard any evidence that librarians who work in the building would shed a tear at its demise. On balance, I’m with what I suspect is the majority in believing that John Madin’s building is not worth preserving.

The campaign to keep it reflects a wider attitude towards Birmingham’s architectural legacy from the 1960s and 1970s which has emerged in the last few years, now that time is being called on so many of these buildings.

This is the view, held by a small but increasingly clamourous minority, that we are in danger of making the same mistake over brutalist architecture that we did over the Victorian architecture it replaced. The argument is that it will inevitably come back into fashion and we will wonder how we carelessly sacrificed so many fine examples.

It’s an example of what I call the Van Gogh fallacy. That is, Van Gogh was unappreciated by most of his contemporaries, but was later generally hailed as a genius: therefore it follows that any artistic endeavour unappreciated by its contemporaries will be vindicated by posterity. In fact, this is untrue in the vast majority of cases.

It is true that Victorian architecture was despised in the 1950s and 60s, to an extent we now find hard to imagine in an age when St Pancras Station, once a national joke, has been newly restored as a national treasure.

But the cultural contexts in which Victorian and brutalist buildings were designed were quite different. What that means is that the quality of Victorian design, rooted in ancient practice, had a consistency, even in what were then called “provincial” cities, which was strikingly absent from 1960s buildings which used new techniques and were often directly driven by economic constraints.

Obviously, the admirers of Madin’s library think it is an exception. But it certainly suffered grievously from economies in construction. Virtually all the advance press coverage of the original design focused on the exciting water gardens, with fountains you could see as you approached along Broad Street, which were never implemented.

While I have always thought that the inverted ziggurat of the main block is impressive when approached from the Broad Street direction, it is seriously compromised by poor materials. And the library’s impact on the Chamberlain Square side is much worse.

In particular, there is its absolute refusal to relate in a satisfactory way to the Council House Extension, to which Madin actually attached his complex, with brusque insensitivity, via a bridge-like block.

When one of the library’s champions challenged me to say what I thought was wrong with it I said I didn’t like the way it treated the Council House Extension.

“Well - you have picked on its weakest point there...” he replied indignantly, as if I was somehow cheating.

The library’s champions raise a serious point about the conversion of civic to commercial space, but its power is much reduced by the failure of Madin’s building to respect its civic predecessors.

Of course, it is supremely ironic that it now faces both listing and demolition, since it replaced a Victorian Library, designed by E M Barry with an extension by Birmingham’s greatest architect J H Chamberlain, which was itself listed.

Such details didn’t much concern Birmingham City Council circa 1970, which set to work illegally with the wrecking ball until a tip-off from a conservationist alerted the Government, and a halt was called. Eventually permission to demolish was granted, but only on condition that the jewel in the crown, Chamberlain’s panelled Shakespeare Room, should be dismantled and re-erected where the public had access to it.

Thanks to the Government’s intervention this fine interior was saved and installed within the new complex, though it now seems to have been largely forgotten. Its future is one issue I have never heard raised in discussions about redeveloping the library.

An architect who was working in Madin’s office at the time the new library was being built once told me how a colleague came up with a suggestion which would have enabled the Victorian library to be preserved alongside its successor (it’s tantalising, if pointless, to speculate whether it could have made a superb museum of Victorian art, along the lines of Paris’s Musee d’Orsay) and was told in no uncertain terms to keep quiet.

So there is an attractive element of poetic justice about the fate now confronting Madin’s library. On the other hand, this should not be allowed to colour the debate on whether its own qualities merit preservation.

Meanwhile, a fascinating parallel debate is taking place on the other side of the Atlantic about the future of Boston’s City Hall. Why do I mention this? Because the Boston building, completed in 1969, is widely believed to have been the inspiration for the Birmingham library.

For years I took this to mean that City Hall was a superior version of the library, so I was surprised, when I finally visited Boston, to discover that it’s actually significantly uglier. Yet the resemblance between the two buildings is difficult to miss, as I’ve confirmed by testing a number of colleagues over the last two days.

Not only City Hall but also its surrounding plaza have long been the focus of bitter debate in Boston. While a poll of architects and historians once voted City Hall the sixth greatest building in America, in 2004 the Project for Public Spaces selected the plaza from hundreds of candidates as the world’s worst. At least Chamberlain Square is better than that.

Recently Boston’s debate has run almost uncannily in parallel with Birmingham’s. In December 2006 Mayor Thomas Menino announced plans to move the city’s administration elsewhere and sell off the building to private developers, but in April 2007 the Boston Landmarks Commission, lobbied by architects and preservationists, granted the building special landmark status.

Earlier this month, Boston Globe columnist Edward L Glaeser, an admirer of the building, wrote a heart-searching piece in which he asked whether its fate should not be entrusted to a public referendum.

But writing in December 2006 his colleague Alex Beam, who last year pointed out the parallel with Birmingham, was far less equivocal: “There is only one possible fate for the Incredible Hulk,” he wrote “Tear it Down.”