Broadcaster Lucinda Lambton visited the Birmingham Central Library. Brendan King heard her accuse the man in charge of the building – who wants it demolished – of “talking rubbish”, The Stirrer [14.10.08].
She called it a “1970s wonderful Brutalist Monster” – standing out well in complement to the surrounding Victoria and Chamberlain Squares with their magnificent Neo-Classical Victorian and post Victorian buildings.
She marvelled at our “great inverted cigarette of a concrete stepped edifice – a unique ‘towering symbol of its age!’ And so unique that if demolished we’d never see the like of such again.”
Lucinda stated that just looking up at the exterior of the Library building, in the sunlight, made her “soul lift upwards and outwards in response to the glory of this great concrete structure. A very strong building indeed”.
She then interviewed Brian Gambles, Head of the Central Library, who was very enthusiastic about the imminent demolition of his work-place. He stated that he supported the Council’s wish to create, at a cost of £193 million, ‘ the best library in the world’ by 2013 and just 200 yards from the current building and that he wanted a new building, fit for the 21st century, allowing technical developments in glass and sound insulation to produce a light and airy building where group study can carry on – rather than the current interior design of the reference section being restricted only to individual private study.
When Lucy exclaimed “what a socking great building it is – a unique symbol of its era and of Birmingham” – Brian argued that Madin’s building fits ill with the older buildings, is incongruous and, in the worst sense, ‘Brutalist’.
“Real rubbish” retorts Lucinda – pointing out how the Guggenheim Museum in New York doesn’t blend with its surrounding older buildings. She argued hotly, to an obviously chastened Mr Gamble, that a modernist building shouldn’t ever ‘blend’ with its neighbours. “That’s the whole point of modernist architecture!”
Gambles then claimed that the building had never been completed to Madin’s design standard. And that it should have been clad in Portland Stone – not left as bare concrete and now pieces were falling off as the material crumbled and had to be protected by netting. Lucy wasn’t impressed – suggesting that if they now clad it in Portland Stone – this would be cheaper than a completely new building.
Gamble then stated that the design of the area was never completed as a total civic amenity centre, in accordance with the City’s and Madin’s original overall plans. But, not to be thwarted, Lucy questioned: “Why not complete the original plan now – at the expense of the McDonalds and similar unplanned outlets that now ‘bugger up to the nines’ the total area? I can see the fountains and gardens enhancing and projecting this great symbol of Birmingham and its era.”
But Mr Gamble argued that the completion of the original project and refurbishment of the building, plus extending it to meet current and future requirements, would cost more than knocking it down and starting again 200 yards away! And he slipped in the enlightening comment, “that demolishing the current building and repositioning a new building will allow outside investment and so finance valuable redevelopment of the total area of Paradise Circus.”
It’s clear that the Council and developers plans, related by Gambles, pre-date the credit crunch and before the slump in sales of new building developments. These interviews would have been recorded before the world-wide recession. I wonder if Mike Whitby and his developers are now eating any of their words?
Lucy and Gambles then entered the Library and she conceded the escalators were narrow. And Gamble pointed out how cramped and dark is the reference section. “We want a group study reference library, allowing talk and discussion that doesn’t disturb individual study users – not possible in the current facility.”
As Mr Gambles then spins about Birmingham not only being a vital Regional Centre – but a future ‘Global City’ requiring a brand new world class library – Lucinda cryptically comments: “Ah but this grand old library would do”.
Lucinda then interviewed Alan Clawley – Secretary of the ‘Friends of Birmingham Central Library’ – and she gave him a much easier time. She described the Council as ‘dastardly’ for wanting to knock down this unique ‘monstrous glory’ of a building.
Mr Clawley contended that since the council, back in the 1999, decided that it was highly profitable to demolish the current Library – they’ve let it deteriorate. And that any building 35 years old needs care, attention and refurbishment. But, unfortunately, it’s a goldmine for developers to demolish and start again – due to the profits of creating new buildings and selling or renting them privately.
Mr Clawley then commented that the Council and its supporters for demolition, continually rubbish the notion of the visual value and wonder of mid -20th Century Brutalist Architecture, as being worthy of preserving. But that, in his and his campaigners view, the Council is being shortsighted and blinkered.
And Lucinda agreed, pointing out that the now much admired Art Deco architecture would have all but gone had it not been for past ‘unfashionable’ preservationists. And she agreed that the poor state of the building and its area has been allowed to deteriorate to fit the plan and the argument for demolition.
Alan reminded Lucy of Prince Charles’ comment that the Library “looked a better place for burning books rather than reading them” and that his remark has been used by detractors of the building ever since. He readily admitted that this kind of Brutalist architecture is not universally admired by the population at large.
They then discussed the value of the building becoming listed, which Lucinda fully recommended Alan and his campaigners continue pursuing – despite the slow process of getting this recognition.
She was encouraged that the ‘Civic Society’ was supporting the application and pointed out that, whilst listing a building didn’t actually prevent demolition, that it slowed down the planning process and ensured all views were heard and fully considered and so made councils, planners and private developers think again more carefully.
Lucinda summarised that she “couldn’t understand the complete and foolhardy shortsightedness of the Council, and that she was so exasperated and grieved at the likely demolition, that she felt like banging her head against the concrete wall of the great, stimulating and excitingly magnificent building.”
I visited Birmingham Library many times shortly after it opened in 1974 and used it for ‘individual study’, which enabled me to gain my history teacher qualification. Every book I needed – even pristine, unread, tombs printed over100 years previously in the Southern States of the US – concerning the American Civil War – were brought to me.
I didn’t consider, then, whether it was the best library in the world (how can one make such a judgment?) but it was certainly the 2nd best in Britain after the British Library in London, for its vast collection of reference books. I loved the building then – inside and out – and I do so until this day.
Hurrah for Lucinda Lambton in supporting wholeheartedly the saving of our great Central Library. Listen to her programme: click here