Birmingham City Council leader Mike Whitby has delivered a passionate plea for Government approval to demolish the Central Library, declaring the building unfit for purpose, poorly designed and unworthy of preservation.
In a 4,500-word letter to Culture Minister Margaret Hodge, Coun Whitby described the 1970s brutalist structure as unwelcoming and claustrophobic for library users.
A decision by Ms Hodge to list the library as a building of special architectural importance would, he believed, stand in the way of the council’s plans for a £1 billion redevelopment of Paradise Circus and construction of a new library in Centenary Square.
Urging Ms Hodge to visit the Central Library before reaching a decision, Coun Whitby added: “The building may be ‘unique’, but it is unique in its ugliness and disfunctionality, hardly grounds for statutory listing one would have thought.”
The council leader heaped criticism on the quality of buildings designed by Central Library architect John Madin, including the former Post and Mail Tower, which was turned down for listing by the Government.
Coun Whitby said the period of brutalist architecture typified by Mr Madin’s designs was now “derided” and the council had spent the past 20 years attempting to get rid of such buildings.
The letter added: “John Madin, admittedly an influence in the post-war development of Birmingham, does not have a national reputation and none of his buildings have been listed.
“With the exception of Andy Foster in the Pevsner Architectural Guide to Birmingham of 2006, I am not aware of any noted architect, or architectural historian or commentator having ever spoken in favour of the retention of the library - let alone its listing - and the City Council is clearly of the opinion that the building does not meet the rigorous requirement for post war statutory listing.”
Pointing out that the Government turned down a recommendation by English Heritage to list the building five years ago, Coun Whitby said nothing had changed other than further deterioration to the structure of the Central Library.
The letter continues: “The conventional wisdom within the city is that the building significantly detracts from the civic ensemble, particularly the recently refurbished Grade l Town Hall and the manner in which the link block, part of the original ensemble, collides with the Grade ll* listed Council House Extension is one of the more obvious ways in which the building fails to respect its higher quality neighbours.
“In conclusion, the City Council vision and passionate ambition, is to be one of the twenty most liveable cities in the world within the next ten years.
“To do so is in the national interest, as well as in the interests of all our citizens in both the city and the wider region.
“I believe this ambition will be significantly impaired if the Council are inhibited by the preservation of the existing library. The two issues are simply incompatible.”
Mike Whitby's letter to Margaret Hodge:
Dear Margaret Hodge,
Birmingham Central Library – Certificate of Immunity from Listing
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the advice prepared by English Heritage following the City Council’s application for a Certificate of Immunity from listing which was submitted on 10 September 2007.
My response concentrates on the architectural and historic significance of the building, although I would start by asking the question how the situation has changed in the five years since the former Secretary of State decided the building should not be listed.
In terms of the physical condition of the building, clearly that has deteriorated further and the inadequacies of the building for a contemporary library service in a dynamic multi-cultural community at the heart of a globally relevant city become evermore apparent.
As the English Heritage advice states, the standards for post war buildings are high with only the very best identified for listing.
Whilst the library clearly received attention in the media and the technical press at the time of its completion - and it would have been surprising had it not done so, given its scale and the fact it was, as the advice states, the largest non-national library in Europe. However, in spite of the international awareness of the building it remains the case that the building has never received a single architectural award since its completion, locally, nationally, or internationally.
In 2002 the Birmingham Post and Mail building was granted a Certificate of Immunity by the Secretary of State. As recently as December 2007, number 103 Colmore Row, the former Nat West bank, was rejected for listing.
It is therefore the case that not a single building by John Madin has been statutorily listed.
With the exception of Andy Foster in the Pevsner Architectural Guide to Birmingham of 2006, I am not aware of any noted architect, or architectural historian or commentator having ever spoken in favour of the retention of the library - let alone its listing - and the City Council is clearly of the opinion that the building does not meet the rigorous requirement for post war statutory listing. I would point out in passing that John Madin lives in Hampshire and not Birmingham as the report states.
The English Heritage advice places the Central Library in the context of the city’s civic centre and in ‘an area notable for the quality of its architecture.’ However, the opinion of both the City Council and the overwhelming majority of leading organisations representing the educational, commercial and civic life of the City, together with residents, is that the intimidating brutalism of the building may well have represented the ‘apogee of this phase of Birmingham’s history’, contemporary with the Inner Ring Road, complete with its subways and underpasses, but it is a period now derided and one which the last twenty years of Council policy have sought to undo.
The conventional wisdom within the City is that the building significantly detracts from the civic ensemble, particularly the recently refurbished Grade l Town Hall and the manner in which the link block, part of the original ensemble, collides with the Grade ll* listed Council House Extension is one of the more obvious ways in which the building fails to respect its higher quality neighbours.
The accretions to the original building have also clearly detracted from the original monumental statement.
In his authoritative book ‘Building Jerusalem’ published in 2007, Tristram Hunt describes the erection of the Chamberlain Memorial as the apogee of the civic gospel and goes on to say, ‘Sadly, the demolition of the sympathetic Victorian architecture which surrounded the Memorial and its replacement in the1970’s by John Madin’s horrendous ziggurat concrete library (famously described by the Prince of Wales as looking like a place where books are incinerated) rather lessens the impression today. Once a shrine to public service, it is now sullied by the glaring neon lights of a McDonalds and the tat of second-rate retailers.’
Again the English Heritage advice refers to the location of the library between the two major public spaces, Chamberlain Square and Centenary Square. The library, in fact, forms a bottleneck and a physical and visual block between the two, which greatly inhibits the development of a well connected central area.
The evolving City Centre Masterplan places considerable emphasis on the need for improved linkages between the city core and Eastside and Centenary Square, Brindleyplace and Westside, whilst north – south links to the Jewellery Quarter are practically non existent.
Clearly in the planning of the redevelopment of this critical and pivotal area the City Council would wish to work closely with English Heritage to ensure the enhancement of a group of distinguished historic civic buildings and their linkages with other parts of the city centre.
The statement that the continuing success of the library is self evident, which is made within the Adviser’s Report - whilst true - is very largely in spite of the building and due to the commitment of the staff who overwhelmingly dislike and are constantly challenged on delivering an important and substantial service to the citizens of Birmingham, and the region, from the existing building.
The difficulty of offering a rapidly changing library service and also housing several world class collections in appropriate conditions becomes evermore problematic.
The City Council has committed itself to the provision of a new Library of Birmingham since the year 2000. The Council’s Cabinet approved the business case for the new library in October 2007 to develop the new library on a site adjacent to and integrated with Birmingham Repertory Theatre, in Centenary Square. This followed extensive feasibility work, including some design work that established that the vision and objectives for the Library of Birmingham can be successfully delivered on the site.
The Council has committed to underwrite the full cost of the new library and archive. This is a commitment to fund a £193 million project which will provide a state-of-the-art library and archive 30% larger than the current library and 10% bigger than any other public library in Europe. The new library will be built, ready and open for business in 2013.
This is because Birmingham City Council recognises the power of knowledge, information and culture to change lives, sharing the Government’s view that culture can ‘contribute substantially to the local economy, to improving peoples’ wellbeing – especially young people – and to the strength and safety of communities in general’. An understanding of this is at the heart of the vision for the Library of Birmingham which will be more than a building, it will be a destination and meeting place for the whole community, breaking down perceived barriers to cultural engagement and playing a pivotal role in the cultural life of the City.
It is important to stress that the role of libraries has been transformed since the early 1970’s when the Central Library was designed, in response to the technological revolution and changing patterns of use for learning, leisure and culture. The ‘extend and refurbish ‘option for the existing library was costed in the 2007 business case at £166 million. This was considered by the Council to be not good value for public money, compromising the opportunity to provide the ‘best library in the world,’ - the new project’s mission statement - and removing all possibility of redeveloping Paradise Circus in a manner which would truly reflect its magnificent and distinguished setting in the civic heart of the largest homogenous city in the United Kingdom.
I would now like to address, in order, the reasons for the designation indicated in the English Heritage report. I would make the following comments:
The boldness and monumental scale of the building create in a modern idiom a monumental civic building worthy of its setting in Birmingham’s civic centre. The boldness and monumental scale’ could be seen as brutalism and intimidation, both externally and internally in the circulation area of the library. It is unsympathetic in its relationship with the adjoining buildings and it prevents the enhancement of their setting, particularly that of the Town Hall, a Grade l Listed Building which has been exceptionally well restored to its former glory (and opened by Prince Charles earlier this year) at a cost of £35 million in partnership with English Heritage.
The architectural quality of its design. The architectural quality is certainly not sufficient to warrant listing; the materials, most particularly the external cladding, were to a reduced specification and the accretions over many years have reduced some of the qualities the building might have had. John Madin, admittedly an influence in the post war development of Birmingham, does not have a national reputation and none of his buildings have been listed. In the opinion of many, his best building, the Birmingham Post and Mail, was turned down for listing in 2002.
The importance of the library to Birmingham: it is the largest non-national library in Europe and as such is a fitting library for England’s second city. It is precisely because of the importance of the library to Birmingham, which is in fact the second largest public library in Europe, that the existing building is no longer fit for purpose and can no longer cater for the educational needs of a modern library service or the curatorial requirements of world class collections. This particular reason for designation appears spurious.
It is the apogee of this phase of Birmingham’s history, evidence of which is fast disappearing. If the library is indeed the ‘apogee of this phase of Birmingham’s history,’ it reflects a very different society which cared little for those with any disability for whom the building is barely accessible. For the general public it is unwelcoming and the circulation spaces awkward, diminutive and indeed claustrophobic for the twelve million people a year that pass through its atrium.
It is unique. The building may be ‘unique’, but it is unique in its ugliness and disfunctionality, hardly grounds for statutory listing one would have thought.
I did want to respond to the specific conservation issues raised in the English Heritage report with regard to the Shakespeare Library and other artefacts. The significance of the Shakespeare Library is fully recognised and there is a clear commitment that it will be reconstructed within the new library.
The Royal Warwickshire Regiment Boer War Memorial, somewhat incongruously located in the lending library, is deserving of a more appropriate location and again there is a clear commitment to do this. The medallions of Shakespeare and Garrick will be rehoused in the new building.
I write this letter as Leader of the City Council, but also as one who has long known the building and experienced its excellent services provided in a poor and outdated environment. Before the Minister comes to a decision on listing I would very much like to invite you to visit the library, as you have done elsewhere.
As we created in Symphony Hall a concert hall which is the equal of anything in the world, we are now committed to a new Library of Birmingham which is similarly the envy of the world. In doing so, to create educational powerhouse which releases the energies of the most learned academic and equally those of the Bangladeshi child from a challenging environment in inner city Sparkbrook and also one which becomes a heritage and social history resource accessible across the globe. That cannot happen in the existing building. We are committed to enhancing and extending the civic area and improving its accessibility; that cannot happen if the existing building is retained.
In conclusion, the City Council vision and passionate ambition, is to be one of the twenty most liveable cities in the world (benchmarked against the annual Mercer index) within the next ten years. To do so is in the national interest, as well as in the interests of all our citizens in both the city and the wider region. I believe this ambition will be significantly impaired if the Council are inhibited by the preservation of the existing library. The two issues are simply incompatible.
For all these reasons the City Council profoundly disagrees with the recommendation of English Heritage and trusts that you will recognise the force of argument against the statutory listing of the Central Library.
I very much look forward to your early response to my letter and confirmation that you will authorise the Council’s application for immunity from listing as soon as conveniently possible.
Leader of Birmingham City Council