If you’ve visited Birmingham recently, there’s a good chance you’ll have been impressed by the spacious, airport-style redevelopment at New Street station. The new, Dutch-designed Library of Birmingham has also won numerous plaudits. Add to that a raft of international investment and the city, in terms of its architecture, economy and its oft-lacking confidence, would seem to be on a positive trajectory.
But in all this Brummie positivism, there has in my view been a tremendous error of judgement. A decision was made and followed through, the result of which will, I suspect, become regarded as a major act of cultural vandalism. An action that will deprive future generations of one of the best examples of an architectural movement, the importance of which has until recently been sadly undervalued.
However well-intentioned the city planners have been the decision to demolish the Birmingham Central Library was a huge mistake. It was a significant building and an unequivocal statement; cathedral like in its interior spaces and a strong expression of Birmingham’s cultural as well as economic importance. Historic England twice tried to list it and there were numerous campaigns to save it, but to no avail. The bulldozers are busily at work, ripping out its concrete heart as I write.
Designed by John Madin and opened in 1974, the library was one of the finest architectural examples of English Brutalism. Part of Birmingham’s Paradise Circus, it formed, with the Rotunda and the Alpha Tower, one of the city’s most important modernist buildings. But it has been deemed surplus to requirements and its stark concrete and bold geometric lines which provided a striking, stately and modern counterpoint to the fine Victorian buildings that surrounded it, are no more.
I am sure that the new ‘Paradise’ development in Birmingham will be of ‘superb’ quality and ‘ideally suited to the needs of modern occupiers in a 21st century city’. No, to give the council and Argent (developer of the excellent Brindleyplace) due credit, I expect that the new Paradise area of Birmingham will be far superior to that. But in creating this new landscape, we have witnessed the destruction of a modern classic and Birmingham, despite its newfound bullishness and long-absent swagger, and the nation as a whole are much the poorer for it.
Brutalism is not to everyone’s taste, but then neither are cubism, Dadaism, magical realism or the second Viennese school. Mercifully, however, these diverse forms are explored and celebrated. Expunge them from the canon and our cultural world – and critically those of generations to come – would be much the poorer for it. The same is true of this important architectural movement. It’s too late for Birmingham Central Library, but it would be good to think – or at least to hope - that the same mistake is not repeated elsewhere.
Stuart Fox, Director