Author: Alan Clawley (2015)
Reviewed by Mike Fox
Published in December 2015, the same month that demolition work started on Birmingham Central Library, Library Story charts the 42 year lifespan and ultimate demise of the city’s most iconic postwar building. In particular it is an account of the 16 year campaign to save it from destruction.
Opened in 1974, Birmingham Central Library was a bold building by the architect John Madin. Aesthetically striking and at the time the largest municipal library building in Europe, it spoke of a new era, of a forward looking, civic minded Birmingham, with learning, arts, and culture laying claim to the very physical heart of the city. The main building, the reference library, was a concrete-clad inverted ziggurat of eight floors, built around an open central atrium which allowed ample light into the study spaces and also protected the archives. The adjacent three storey lending library had a slightly curved façade which pleasantly contrasted with the rectangular geometry of the ziggurat. Internally, intimate and expansive spaces effortlessly flowed into one another, in contrast to the building’s imposing exterior.
Although not finished to the architect’s brief – Madin had intended either Portland Stone or Travertine Marble for the exterior – and later unsympathetically altered and not maintained by the council, it was a landmark building responsive to its Victorian surroundings; providing a contrast to them without overpowering them.
Birmingham Central Library, as viewed from Chamberlain Square.
Di tedandjen – http://www.flickr.com/photos/tedandjen/2238067062/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7069099
Library Story hints at the design and functional history of the building, but this is not an architectural history book. At its heart is the planning history of Central Library and the story of the campaign to save it from the wrecking ball – it is as much a history of local government and redevelopment in Birmingham over the last 16 years, as it is a history of the library alone.
The book is divided chronologically, starting with the library’s public opening in 1974 and ending in 2015, just prior to demolition. Sixteen chapters describe in detail the key events of each year of the campaign – the adoption of masterplans and appointment of architects, changes in council leadership, consultations, press events, listing attempts, and the opening of the new Library of Birmingham in 2013. Set alongside these are the actions of the Friends of Central Library in making the case for retaining Madin’s building, and their vital role in holding the council to account and attempting to dispel the spin and PR hype of the pro-demolition groups.
Just 25 years after it had opened plans were already being prepared to replace Central Library with a new building, with the intention to use the existing site for private office-led redevelopment. The option of upgrading Central Library was dismissed by the council almost from the start; they cited defects in some of the concrete panels and the need for more floorspace as justifications for demolition.
Over 16 years a series of plans were produced only to be scrapped due to changes in council leadership and economic fluctuations. Throughout this period the Friends of Central Library campaigned tirelessly, locally and nationally, to save the building, and were effectively the only body scrutinising the decisions being taken in local government. The Friends were formally founded in 2007, although individuals, including Clawley, had been calling for the preservation of the library since 2002. Clawley was elected as secretary, Andy Foster, author of the Birmingham Pevsner, as the chair, and Iqbal Basi treasurer. The Friends represented c.50 paid up members, with a larger mailing list and social media following.
Eventually a design for a new library was adopted and carried through to completion, opening its doors in 2013, a stone’s throw from the Central Library. The new Library has less floorspace than the one it replaced, despite the council’s earlier assertions more space was needed. The demolition of Central Library began in January 2016.
The Library of Birmingham, Centenary Square, which opened in 2013.
Creative commons licence ChrisLloydPhotography
Despite being focussed on a singular campaign issue, Library Story feeds into the wider debate about Brutalist architecture, its current revival and the increasing appreciation for it, nationally and internationally. Clawley rightly returns to this several times in the text, but it would have been useful for this point to have been developed more.
Central Library was twice recommended for listing by English Heritage (Historic England) at Grade II, and twice it was refused following lobbying by the council and other vested business interests. To this end more could have been made of a comparison with Preston Bus Station, a similar campaign which ran concurrently with that of the Central Library, but which resulted in the Bus Station being listed in 2013.
Furthermore, a discussion about the recent listing refusals of James Stirling’s postmodernist No 1 Poultry in the City of London, and Basil Spence’s Hyde Park Barracks in the City of Westminster, despite being recommended for listing by Historic England, would have been interesting.
At times the chronological approach becomes wearisome, with lists of press articles and letters printed in local papers dominating the text and preventing a natural flow. Objectivity too is absent at times, but this is to be expected when the author was so closely involved in the campaign. The benefit of this approach is that a detailed picture is built up, showing the exhaustive work of Clawley and the Friends, and just how consuming these campaigns can be. As an account of a 16 year campaign Library Story is a success, which manages, for the most part, to maintain an engaging narrative.
I felt myself wanting more description of the building and its qualities (which Clawley is more than capable of). Clawley is the author of the RIBA monograph on Madin, published in 2011, and knows the building inside out. This would have been helpful in carrying the reader along with the history of the campaign, explaining why such effort was justified over such a long period of time.
Similarly, illustrations are somewhat lacking. The inclusion of more would have enlivened the text. Those that are included only hint at what a terrific and very photogenic building the Central Library was. On the whole however it is a handsomely produced book, designed by Ian Cuthbert of Cuthbert Design.
Library Story tells of the decline, mismanagement, and demolition of Birmingham’s premier postwar building, and the hard fought campaign to prevent this from happening. Clawley and the Friends of Central Library should be very proud of the publication. It is vital that this story has been documented, and serves as a template for other campaigns around the country, both successful and unsuccessful, in establishing a legacy.
Library Story is available from the Friends of Central Library and the Brutiful Action Group (firstname.lastname@example.org). Copies can also be purchased in the Ikon Gallery bookshop, Oozells Street, Birmingham B1 2HS
More information about the architect John Madin is available in this free ebook – http://www.john-madin.info/downloads/John_Madin_Architect_Planner_ebook.pdf