Central Library, Birmingham
Birmingham’s Central Library was built in 1973 as part of a pioneering plan for a new Civic Centre in Birmingham. In the optimistic spirit of post-war city planning a masterplan was hatched to construct not only the library but a School of Music, drama centre and a variety of shops and offices all interconnected with that familiar feature of 60s planning; elevated walkways.
The library was built and opened in 1974, and along with the Conservatoire it was the only major part of the plan to be salvaged before spending cuts hit. It is an inverted ziggurat with an atrium at the centre suspended over the ring-road (and what was proposed to be a bus station). The ziggurat forms the reference library and next door is the much more modest lending library with it’s three story, convex façade, see (here).
The library is being replaced next year by the new Library of Birmingham. I am certainly not the kind of person to bash a new library being built and it’s possible that Birmingham needs it but I’d like to think there was a better reason to spend millions of pounds on a replacement just because what is currently there is ugly. In my humble opinion the architecture employed at the new site is a post-modern mess, a perspex box covered in barbed wire that hasn’t a patch on the original. See (here).
The 38 year-old library will be demolished in 2013 once its replacement is open and this, well this is a travesty. The biggest issue as far as I can see with the exterior is the lack of windows, a lack which inspired everyone’s favourite architecture critic, Prince Charles, to proclaim “it looks more like a place for burning books than keeping them”. There is some truth to that, the exterior looks Orwellian even if the intention was to protect books from sunlight, see (here), but the interior, the light-filled atrium and the high-windows of the entrance hall are a different story.
These days it’s another victim of our tendency to let buildings decay until we can justify demolishing them. The concrete cladding is stained and in poor condition but then it hasn’t been cleaned since the early 1970s so that’s no surprise. In 2001 the tall entrance hall was ruined by the addition of a perspex lobby which gives way to the atrium, redesigned in the 1990s from civic space to miniature shopping mall complete with McDonalds and Wetherspoons.
I would love to see this building saved. It has so much potential, an iconic lump of architecture soon to be emptied right in the heart of the civic centre of Birmingham. The atrium lends itself perfectly to a more fashionable renewal, reinstating some pools of water and trees and replacing the tacky 90s shop units with something more akin to a high street. Above the library spaces could be converted into offices or flats, the concrete exterior could so easily be painted white and perhaps some of it dismantled to allow for larger windows.
Another idea that’s been floated is the creation of a TATE West Midlands. This could work especially well in such an iconic space, I’d love to see walkways across the atrium connecting different galleries and the smaller lending library being turned into a museum or offices for local creative organisation. Whatever happens it’s going to be a crying shame when the buldozers come. Just as we look back to 1971 and wonder how people could have been so blind as to demolish the elegant Victorian building we’ll look back on 2013 and wonder how it is that we replaced this slice of architectural history and vision with a perspex box covered in barbed wire.