Dear Editor, As the train drew out of the tunnel and into New Street station, my first sight of Birmingham city centre was the signal box. It was a delightful surprise, and I felt that any city with the imagination to accommodate that wittily functional building must be worth living in. That was in 1970 and having been here ever since and seen so many banal buildings appear in the city centre, it now seems a miracle that a building as individual and as striking as the signal box ever came into existence.
The type of opposition that automatically greets almost any new building in Birmingham was painfully apparent some years ago in a television programme.
It tracked the sorry tale of how Piers Gough’s stimulating idea for another architectural gem was steadily whittled down by niggling and sniping. The ending made me feel ashamed of the city in which I had chosen to live: Gough sadly saying he had given up as the idea was no longer his and Birmingham could have what it wanted. And we have to live with the result: the coffee house in the middle of Brindley Place has enough touches for it to be seen as safely modern but not so much thought or imagination that it might frighten people.
As the television programme so vividly indicated, it was in effect designed by a committee of architectural Jeremiahs. And so it looks to be with the Mecanoo’s proposals for the new library. However, this particular chorus of disapproval is singing from an incomplete score, as Mecanoo’s website clearly shows. The architects are considering sustainability and ecological issues, and they are designing the building round its foreseeable functions and potential users.
The thinking behind The Public in West Bromwich was indeed over-ambitious and it has become a colossal financial liability, but anyone who has visited the building itself can see and feel that it has enormous potential to relate directly to the way younger people see themselves and their world. In the case of the proposed Birmingham library, the filigree feature comes in for ridicule, but it is worth recalling that the overlapping circle (incidentally, not spiral) motif is universal, appearing in tile-work, metal-work and textiles all over the world and throughout history.
The computer generated concept drawing – and we should remember that this is all we have to go on at the moment – indicates that the size of the building, which is clearly necessary to hold all the proposed activities and facilities, will be balanced by the metaphorically and physically light surface treatment. It will therefore visually overshadow neither The Rep or Baskerville House but will form a civic panorama linking Symphony Hall and the ICC with the city centre. In this context, Birmingham’s most extensive but least recognised public art-work – the paved carpet by Tess Jaray in Centenary Square – would horizontally complement the vertical patterns on the new library.
In whatever form the computer aided drawings materialise, please can Birmingham not repeat the sad and shameful episode of the Brindley Place building?
Of course, the huge new library is much more important to Birmingham than a small café: an even greater reason to make sure that the Mecanoo’s vision is not worn down by short-sighted criticism into safe anonymity.
Dr Tom Jones, Edgbaston