The great inverted ziggurat of Birmingham: why is it so misunderstood?

28 12 2008

So just what is it about the Birmingham Central Library that generates such loathing (and almost as as much passionate support)?

Upward corner

A place in the world

A poll reported on the BBC about Britain’s ugliest building was swamped with anti-Birmingham sentiment, with the Central Library in second place and the Bullring first. The survey was carried out for EA Games but little detail exists (as the original source cannot be found) though press reports indicate it was a small, confused survey mixing buildings and structures as, somewhat inevitably, Spaghetti Junction was also in the top ten. This is clearly madness, showing that poll has been hijacked and, other than a brief flurry of press report, soon to be forgotten.

But then travel website Virtual Tourist ran a poll to find the The World’s Top 10 Ugliest Buildings and Monumenst and yes, there at number nine is the Birmingham Central Library(1). The site has no detail or discussion about the results (there is some discussion on NowPublic) and the only theme that can be seen is that the voters appear to have an aversion to concrete structures. What is interesting is that at number one is Boston City Hall which is described by Jonathan Glancey in The Guardian as being the inspiration for the Central Library – the similarities are obvious (see the City Hall on Flickr) – and both are classic examples of the Brutalist style(2).

Strange effect of the setting sun

How we got here

The current Central Library, the third on the site, was opened by Rt Hon Harold Wilson, MP, on 12th January 1974 and designed by the renowned John Madin, the creator of much of Birmingham’s post-war architecture(3) (there is a fascinating 1965 BBC documentary about him which you can watch here). Madin’s original design, however, has never been fully realised and it is this non-completion that may well be central to why many people hate the building (that, and because they just don’t like the concrete). Madin himself when interviewed recently (scroll down here for the full video) about the ongoing controversy attributed people’s reactions to its not being finished. In the notes to an exhibition about the library Madin explains his original concept for the building and, critically, the area around it:

“My concept was to create a new Civic Centre complex for the great city of Birmingham linking the existing Council House and Town Hall with Baskerville House […] comprising a carefully planned group of civic and cultural buildings at the heart of the city linked by pedestrian walkways and civic squares, decorated pools waterfalls and fountains”.

Unfortunately the walkways and water features were never built and the plots around the Library were sold off to developers who built the Copthorne Hotel, Chamberlain House, Fletchers Walk and an office block. The extensive collection of photographs from the exhibition show the construction, by Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons, and development of the area and clearly show the damaging effect the Copthorne Hotel/Chamberlain House buildings have had on the visual context of the Library. The rest of the area around the Library is almost as bad with the North part effectively leading nowhere other than to roads and the South exit closed to create more retail space during a recent refurbishment. The East leads to Chamberlain Square and the Council House but has been cluttered by the addition of the current main Library entrance. The Birmingham City Council site has a good introduction to the history of all stages of the Library. Madin talks further about his views of the changes to his original design – which was to have used marble rather than concrete – at The Stirrer and The Guardian.

Most of one side

Should it stay or should it go?

It should stay.

Unfortunately others, as the polls above show, have other ideas. Prince Charles, for example, has described the Central Library as looking “like a place where books are incinerated, not kept” (but our Library is in good company as he calls the equally brutalist National Theatre ”a nuclear power station in the centre of London”. He does not mean this as a compliment). His view is shared by Bob Piper, a Labour Councillor in Sandwell, who, on his blog, says Prince Charles’ view “strikes me as just about spot on” (but to be fair he does say there are few other things he agrees with the Prince on). To make matters worse the City Council is very much against the current Library, having recently announced a “£193 million project will be developed on land adjoining The REP, with the library and theatre joining together and sharing a number of facilities to create a unique centre for knowledge, learning and culture”. This is bad news for the existing Library as funding for the new one partly comes from the development of Paradise Circus by the Argent Group (who bought the area from BCC in 2005) the main aim of which is to:

“sweep away the concrete clutter of appalling 1970s brutalism – the Central Library, Conservatoire, Copthorne Hotel and former Government Offices – and open up new pedestrian routes between the city centre shopping area and Centenary Square”

This has an eerie resonance with Madin’s original Library design and if they left the current Library as it is the result would likely be very close to that original design, a suggestion that has already been made by BiNS. An alternative proposal based on keeping the current Library has been suggested by Martin Mullaney, Lib Dem Councillor for Moseley & Kings Heath, and is, quite simply, genius. He puts forward a new library to the south of the current one but the key part of his plan is what happens to the existing Library which is kept and:

“converted into a Tate Modern Birmingham with the central atrium space for large crazy exhibits, as per London’s Tate Modern. The central atrium ceases to be a major throughfare. The entrance to the new Tate Modern Birmingham would be underneath the atrium of the old Central Library with an escalator raising patrons into the centre of the atrium area. A system of escalators inside the atrium area would raise members of the public to the different floor levels of the Tate Modern”

His proposal is well described on his website (although the map is confusingly inverted) and includes commercial considerations to pay for it. It would probably free more space around the current Library but Mullaney’s plan does include clearing away all the additions which obscure the central inverted ziggurat.

The Stirrer has recently discussed the arguments for/against demolition and there has been more disagreement on the BBC with Lucinda Lambton’s riposte to Brian Gambles, the Council’s chief librarian, comment about the current Library “not fitting in” being:

“I think it’s real rubbish saying that it [the Library] sits awkwardly, because all great buildings … I mean look at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, for example, that doesn’t sit well with any of its neighbours. If it’s a really good building and of its age, with a huge integrity of its age, then that’s terrific, it doesn’t matter; it shouldn’t fit with its neighbours.”

The Library also has support from Jonathan Glancey, the architecture critic of The Guardian. In 2003 he discussed the transformation of the city centre and would no doubt support Martin Mullaney as he has this to say about the Library:

“It has real presence, and it is not hard to imagine it being transformed, with the help of sympathetic and imaginative architects, artists and designers, into a popular hub of fresh cultural activity.”

He also talks about the original concept for the replacement library to be designed by Richard Rogers and be part of the renovation of Eastside (for which Birmingham Central is the best source to keep track of the various stages of the project).

Concrete and Joseph

So what’s going to happen next?

This should be simple as the City Council have decided what they want and have appointed Mecanoo to design it and there is even a timescale: construction scheduled to start in 2010 for completion by mid 2013. There is, however, one thing which may cause a re-evaluation: the credit crunch, as the economics of using land development to fund the the new library will now be radically different. Some of the current implications for the financing are discussed further by The Stirrer, concluding “since the Plan was written no Council land has been sold, commercial property values are set to halve and the prospect of borrowing £99 million from the private sector has become laughable”.

There is also some hope for the building itself as its legal status is currently being defined, English Heritage having been asked to again consider listing the building (it was refused listed status in 2002). It is somewhat ironic that this consideration for listing is as a result of the developer asking for a Certificate of Immunity from listing in order to give more certainty for the development, but for this to be granted the Library first has to be considered for listing. The English Heritage statement explains this further as well as making it clear that listed status could not prevent the building being demolished, since “listing is not a preservation order, simply a mark of national significance. Listed buildings can still be demolished once the case has been made”. There is further discussion on the possible fate of the library on the Birmingham Post and the Architect’s Journal with reaction here.

One corner

So what does Inversion Layer think?

  • Build a new landmark library

  • Keep the current Library

  • Clear all the clutter from around it

  • Turn it into the Birmingham Museum of Modern Art

    More pictures of the Library can be found here (although there are some pictures from that other Birmingham). And if you are a supporter of the Library you can even buy the t-shirt!



    Footnotes

    (1) The other UK representatives in the list are the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral at number four and the Scottish Parliament Building at number eight, neither of which I’d even be considering for a list of ‘ugly’ buildings.

    (2) The term Brutalist Architecture originates from the French béton brut, or “raw concrete”, a term used by Le Corbusier to describe his choice of material.

    (3) And coincidentally the designer of 1 Hagley Road (aka Metropolitan House, although this is not used today), the building I work in:

    urban flora

    — words by Paul

    — pictures by Paul and Elizabeth

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    7 responses

    29 12 2008
    patrickhadfield

    Definitely keep it! I like the idea for a modern art museum – that seems in keeping.

    I love the Scottish Parliament – I have some more photos on the way!

    31 12 2008
    Midge D

    I think a lot of the stick the Central Library gets is unwarranted. Certainly it looks dated as did the Rotunda which i think it deserves a similar make-over (part of the Big City Plan maybe). I’ve always pictured a sort of ‘hanging garden’ greenery type of motif 🙂 ?.

    31 12 2008
    Focalplane

    The library is great, it works – anyone wanting to close it down doesn’t understand libraries.

    The thoroughfare through the building desparately needs a makeover, so the art gallery concept is a good one.

    5 01 2009
    David

    Face it. It’s a pile of cack. Always has been. Why not do something original. Knock it down and rebuild the original Victorian library. It was beautiful.

    7 03 2009
    BB B

    how can rebuilding a victorian library be original?

    I’m surprised it features in so many polls – perhaps Mike Whitby is getting his staff to make sure its on every hate list?

    14 04 2009
    David Hicks

    The demolition and reconstruction of the library would create a huge amount of pollution, including greenhouse gases, waste of resources and energy. The world is in crisis and we simply should not do this sort of thing. To save and adapt buildings if necessary should be our guiding principal.
    Besides, the library looks an inspired building.

    27 11 2009
    Britain’s scariest roads: more anti-Birmingham propaganda « Inversion Layer

    […] In yet another small sample survey Birmingham has come out badly. After the Central Library was listed as one of the most ugly buildings in the world a survey on the BBC claims that Birmingham has three […]

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