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'A place where books are incinerated, not kept'

by Ben Flatman

 

This article on Brutalism and Birmingham Central Library was written for the 'Stones of Menace' exhibition at St. Pual's Church, Bow Common, on 26th June 2010. The exhibition was orgainsed by Scare in the Community.

[jun2010]

 

 

 

 

 

Birmingham is a place constantly at war with its own past – somewhere that has never been entirely comfortable with itself or its built environment. Ever since the late nineteenth-century the city has been periodically convulsed by attempts at reinventing itself through wholesale demolition and rebuilding. In the 1960s, flush with cash and brimming with the optimism induced by a post-war boom, Birmingham embarked on perhaps its most ambitious redevelopment, based upon the vision of a city designed for cars. The Victorian city that had preceded it was systematically destroyed and replaced by an expensive network of urban motorways, encircling and bisecting the old city centre. As a place proud of its scientific and engineering heritage, the task of masterplanning this new city was entrusted not to an architect or planner, but to the City Engineer, Herbert Manzoni. A former assistant in the local authority sewerage department, Manzoni was disdainful of the city’s architectural past, and held a firm belief in the importance of roads and looking to the future. Manzoni’s views on architecture capture the essence of Birmingham’s attitude to its built environment from the nineteenth-century through to the present day:

I have never been very certain as to the value of tangible links with the past. They are often more sentimental than valuable... As to Birmingham’s buildings, there is little of real worth in our architecture. Its replacement should be an improvement... As for future generations, I think they will be better occupied in applying their thoughts and energies to forging ahead, rather than looking backward.

entrance

Unsurprisingly, given the city’s outlook at the time, little of enduring quality was built during the frantic construction boom of the 1960s and 70s. Amongst the few exceptions to the tide of architectural mediocrity that swept the city was the work of the John Madin Design Group, which designed a string of thoughtful and now rapidly disappearing buildings, including the AEU offices at Holloway Circus (1957) and the Birmingham Post and Mail building at Colmore Circus (1964), both of which were demolished in 2005. Most notable amongst Madin’s work is Birmingham Central Library, a building once described by Prince Charles as looking like ‘A place where books are incinerated, not kept’. The library, opened in 1974, is in fact one of the best-used public libraries in Europe, with over one million books and five thousand visitors a day. Unlike most other Birmingham buildings of the period, it has a powerful civic presence. It sits confidently around two sides of Chamberlain Square, complementing and not detracting from its Victorian neighbours, the Town Hall and the Museum and Art Gallery.

moat cafe

And yet, despite its evident success on many levels, Birmingham Central Library has attracted many enemies. The library has become synonymous in its critics’ minds with ‘brutalism’. Not perhaps because of the clear debt it owes to the Brutalist aesthetic, but because to many, it is itself ‘brutal’ – a “concrete monstrosity” as Clive Dutton, the city’s most recent Director of Planning and Regeneration once described it. However, the persistence of such visceral outrage towards the best architecture of the 60s and 70s is perhaps less evidence of its abject failure, than of the economic imperatives that drive our urban landscapes. When later challenged to justify his views on the library, Dutton responded with a revealing insight into the wider issues impacting the council’s attitude to the library site: “A minority of people [support the library] but it’s very easy for them to make comments when they carry no responsibility for the economic viability of the area.” The until then unspoken fact that the library sits on prime city centre real estate was also clearly weighing heavily on Dutton’s mind as he made his architectural judgment.

ravine

The Central Library represents an increasingly rare thing in many British cities - bold and civic-minded architecture, designed to be free and open to all. Birmingham’s most recent reinvention has instead been focussed on shopping and service industries, with little space left over for civic life or culture. As part of its perpetual re-erasing of the city’s past, the council is readying its demolition crews and preparing to sweep away the Central Library, which will be replaced by a new office development. Channelling the spirit of Herbert Manzoni, the city is seeking to wipe the slate clean once again. A new library is planned nearby, designed by Dutch architectural practice, Mecanoo. It may become a worthy successor to the current building, but the city will have lost another precious piece of itself and its past. A sense of civic self-worth was and perhaps remains allusive, to a city that while always forward looking, has never learnt the value of pausing and looking back.

 



Ben Flatman

benflatman@hotmail.com


   
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