Birmingham Central Library

Josh Allen is currently studying an MA in Modern British Studies. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshPAllen


Josh Allen

Josh Allen

I’ve many lofty aesthetic, ideological and historical objections to the Central Library’s destruction. We’ll touch on them in due course, the primary thrust of this blog is far closer to the gut, rawer and more emotional. With each bite that the concrete compactor takes out of the Paradise Circus structure, a chunk of one of the key sites and landmarks of my childhood is being torn away.

One of my earliest memories is of gazing out of the windows of the Central Library’s, tiny, slightly shabby, first floor cafe. I can’t be more than three, maybe I’m as young as two. The exact timing would hinge on whether my Mum, who, doubtless clutching a brown plastic cup of coffee, must be present near by, is cradling my sister or not. We’re there because Birmingham in the early to mid 1990s didn’t have the supposed “cafe culture” it does now, and there were few places that welcomed small children and even fewer with large quantities of books.

 

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Demolition of Birmingham Central Library By Bs0u10e01 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

So: my small child’s eyes are peering through the misted pane, intrigued by the twisted concrete world around me. Peering down on the water features drained for lack of funds, the bridge from the Museum and Art Gallery’s annex (which never thronged with the hordes of municipal workers anticipated) and the small units of flats which never saw any tenants. In 1995 (we’ll assume it’s 1995, meaning I’m three and my sister is there), barely 20, the Central Library has already become the repository of Birmingham’s lost and outmoded hopes and dreams. A grave disappointment to its parents over the road on Victoria Square.

I spent much of my childhood absorbed in books, but learned to read a lot later than most children. The solution was audiobooks, and the best audiobooks were to be found at the Central Library. Aged six I’d gather great piles of them off their shelves in the children’s section, under the watchful eye of a large gorilla doll (I wonder where it is now? Hopefully it’s in a pleasant retirement with the statue that used to stand outside the Bullring), ready to carry home on the Cross City Line or 45 bus in eager anticipation, but always ready for the disappointment of a corrupted tape or a broken spool.

Birmingham to was a curiously optimistic place. In stereotypically Birmingham fashion Dick Knowles’s “civic renaissance” had given it lots of baubles: canalside regeneration, Brindley Place, an alphabet soup of acronyms: NIA, ICC, CBSO. All of which were highly clustered in the centre, away from the communities where most people in the city lived (and widely mocked by everyone from Spitting Image to The Fall).Theresa Stewart’s Council administration, which ran the city for much of the 1990s, set out to try and change this.

As a primary school child I definitely benefited from this enlightened form of social democratic civic rule. Growing up through a school system overseen by the visionary Professor Tim Brighouse, long before Jamie Oliver, healthy school meals were prioritised, school residential visits subsidised to the point of being mandatory and Christmas outgoings to the Birmingham Royal Ballet normal. School trips to the Symphony Hall weren’t just free, but an opportunity to perform on the stage. I did so more than once.

My brief moment as a Birmingham Music Service supported flutist was a failure, but a couple of years ago, when the “B-Town” music scene (Peace, Swim Deep and all the rest) was being talked up by the NME, I thought back to the 1990s and early 2000s when an enlightened education authority (through a philosophy of creatively uniform and universal provision so different from anything espoused in current social policy) sought to spread cultural experience to Birmingham’s entire school age population. When an entire city shows such confidence in you at such an early age it is the easiest thing in the world to get up on stage and start a band.

Portrait of the Author as a Very Young Man

Portrait of the author as a very young man

Today this moment is implicitly and explicitly slated. Accused of being an indulgent last hurrah for the pre-Blairite soft-left, Stewart’s regime has been accused at best of being wasteful and encouraging mediocrity, at worst of turning a blind eye to, or even promoting, dark corners that allowed abuse and “extremism” to fester and mushroom.

At the turn of the millennium the Central Library stood at the heart of this network of civic cultural and community patronage, experimentation and creativity. Acting as a hub for community cultural celebrations, educational outreach and the construction of family and local histories. But things were changing, Theresa Stewart was replaced by Albert Bore, the “broken windows” theory of policing led to the goths and skaters that used to congregate around Paradise Circus being chased away, Blairism as usual…

It was around the time that the Iraq War shattered Labour’s hegemonic hold over Birmingham that I used to go to the Central Library to take out the latest books by Anthony Horowitz, Darren Shan and Terry Derry, or lose myself for hours in the pages of history books, atlas’ or Nintendo Official Magazine and Gamesmaster. The mid-00s economic “boom” was in full swing and the world outside with its vertigo inducing new Bullring, sadistic railway ticket inspectors with an aversion to 12 year old boys traveling alone and playground competitions over who had the latest Reeboks, copy of Nuts or EA Sports felt harsh and unwelcoming.

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Library of Birmingham, Author’s photo

By contrast the supposedly “harsh and unwelcoming” Central Library seemed a non-judgemental oasis where I was treated no differently from any other visitor. This is a quality that I’ve come to associate with brutalist architecture. The raw concrete is a blank canvas which accepts everyone on the same terms and which moulds itself to the contours of your imagination.

Visiting the Central Library also brought me into contact with the far more interesting adult world that I longed to join. A world that could be glimpsed not just through books, periodicals and pictures, but also through sitting and observing the people all around me. Casual users from all parts of the city browsing the stacks, researchers and students highly focused and hard at work, the exiles huddled in groups, surrounded by papers in obscure scripts, deep in discussion about affairs in the homeland.

The building’s clandestine uses stretched far beyond diaspora politics, something that I every once in awhile overheard or stumbled upon: the devout looking Muslim man quietly confiding to a female friend that he’d secretly been attending “the gay pray”, the knowing and glances and surreptitious hand-holding that took place amongst the Asian sixth formers who went there to “revise”. Even on occasion the grunts and scrapes from the toilet cubicles on the second floor, the memory of which brings to my adult mind the final stanzas of Seamus Heaney’s “The Death of a Naturalist”.

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Birmingham Central Library, Author’s photo

I left Birmingham to go to university ending up on a campus that my brutalist upbringing left me well conditioned for. Graduating into the tail-end of a recession, I ended up back in the hometown that I swore I’d left for good, three years older and with plenty of knowledge, degree certificate in one hand, benefits book in the other. It was the summer of 2013 and with a shiny successor-arisen during my absence-the Central Library’s days were numbered. Whilst people still thronged through Paradise Forum, the Library’s sliding doors were shut, its escalators still, it’s bespoke chairs empty, its shelves stripped of their stock.

Long before plans to construct the Library of Birmingham that now sits on Centenary Square were unveiled it was evident that the City Council wanted rid of Paradise Circus. In the early 2000s they engaged the doyen of New Labour urbanism, Richard Rogers, to build a new library at Millennium Point. The election of a Conservative-LibDem Coalition in 2004, committed in theory to economy (and probably not all that keen on Rogers’ socialist credentials), meant that the plan came to nothing.

Instead the Conservative-LibDem Coalition, so keen to ensure that Birmingham’s Council Tax rises were “amongst the lowest in the country” during the “boom” years, borrowed off the books through a private finance initiative type arrangement to buy the Library of Birmingham. Today the repayments and interest on this deal cost the city £12million a year. Getting a building worth £190million for nearly £500million is a poor deal by any yardstick, and at a time of swingeing budget cuts it becomes unsustainable. According to The Guardian’s Jonathan Glancey refurbishing and modernising the Central Library would have cost no more than £20million. Operating today with a skeleton staff, no events budget and opening hours nearly half what they were upon opening the Library of Birmingham, like cultural provision and local public services in Birmingham more generally, is in a sorry state.

Marx believed: “history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce”. From the vantage point of 2015, the confidently modernist Central Library and knowingly post-modernist Library of Birmingham aren’t so much antithesis’ as twins. It isn’t the historian’s duty to serve up trite moral fables for the present, but in the story of Birmingham’s two libraries it’s possible to see writ large, in cast concrete and plate glass, fifty years of Birmingham history and wider shifts in political economy.

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Library of Birmingham

In 1940, during the bleakest period of the Second World War for Britain, John Madin a sixteen year old art student from Mosely south Birmingham, wrote and drew imagining his crooked, soot blackened, and increasingly bomb scared hometown rebourne as a modernist utopia. As an adult, he got the chance to put this vision into practice.

Commissioned by the City Council in 1965 to draw up plans for a new civic centre, auditorium and central library the John Madin Design Group presented a truly space-age vision of undulating modular pods, flying gantries and bracing public spaces. Intended to wrought in such a way as to present shear cliffs of white portland stone, the building’s grandiose scale would be off-set by cascades of running water and decks of flowers.

The dream was a people’s palace for the motor city. In the 1960s Birmingham was at the heart of the fastest growing region in the country, a city with full employment sucking in people from across the Commonwealth. Catherine Hall, who moved to Birmingham as a student the year before Madin got his commission, has described the thrusting, unsentimental and somewhat aggressive atmosphere she found, like this:

“…represented by liberals from its inception as a parliamentary borough [it had] turned conservative and imperialist at the end of the nineteenth century. In the early 1960s the city fathers were busy destroying much of what was left of the Victorian town and building the Bull Ring and the motorway which circled the heart of the city and other, ugly monuments to the car and consumption. The city was conservative in culture and celebratory of the small man and his struggles…” 

Much of that could still describe the city of Birmingham today. However, whilst the Central Library with its stark lines, brute presence and the ring-roads which act like a moat on three sides of it, is cast in a similar mode, it is definitely of the city that Hall found so alienating and distasteful, its purpose could not be more different.

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Birmingham Central Library, Author’s photo

Shortly before his death in 2012 John Madin explained in a series of interviews that his library was “for the public [to use] as a centre of learning”. Even going so far as to suggest that the principal reason why the Council wanted to demolish it was so they could sell off “valuable land owned by the public”.

These principles of public access and public control are key to understanding the project. Here at the heart of the city was to be an open complex, democratic in appearance, dedicated to bringing learning, culture and the city’s government closer to the people. The Central Library whilst built in the 1970s, belongs to a slightly earlier moment. It belongs with the “white heat of technology” and the Fabian optimism of the early Wilson period. It’s kinfolk are the Council for National Academic Awards, National Girobank and Concorde. Grand projects that budget cuts and political shifts distorted so they didn’t work out as intended.

There are aspects of the design that point to the collapse of the social democratic belief in the political application of expertise that girds the essential ideology behind the Library project. The story of how budget cuts after 1970 led to the Library being faced with concrete rather than portland stone and to the project being scaled back so that only the Library and neighbouring Conservatoire were built is well known. However it’s also possible to read the era’s unease in the building itself.

Whilst its integrated format and fora like features possibly hark back architecturally to the classical age, the Central Library fundamentally differs from most civic centre projects, and not just in scale. Madin’s design ostensibly points towards the space age future, however, its form and decoration recall if anything the shapes and architectural tropes of ancient Iraq, Angkor Wat or pre-Columbian South America. In doing so it brings to mind the fragment of Peter Shaffer’s Equus where the child psychiatrist Dr. Dysart, a middle aged, middle class enthusiast for all things deemed “primitive” who we are led to consider highly troubled, even as we view the world of the play through his eyes, relates a dream that he’s had. In Dysart’s dream, his psychiatrist’s skill and ability to “help” children who don’t fit society’s mould, morphs terrifyingly, into the role of a high priest; engaged in the ritual slaughter of the young to appease the gods. For all its supposed confidence and faith in the moldability of society, a kernel of doubt gnawed at the heart of the post-war project.

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Birmingham Central Library, Author’s photo

Equus premiered in 1973, in 1974 Harold Wilson opened Birmingham Central Library. Between its conception in 1965 and it’s opening in 1974, oil shocks, budget cuts, the first stirrings of environmental concern and the steady advance of the conditions that made possible the sociopolitical paradigm we now know as neo-liberalism, the Central Library become a building out of time.

That’s the tragedy, this is the farce. In August 2008, a year after the beginning of the financial crisis, Birmingham City Council commissioned the Library of Birmingham. The Library of Birmingham is a fine building in of itself and represents some fine ambitions. However, in choosing to fund the building through a complex financing mechanism at exactly the same time as the world’s financial system effective collapse exposed the inherently unstable nature of financialised capitalism, the Council created a blatant hostage to fortune. It was as if, to borrow another phrase from 19th Century French history, Birmingham City Council had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

In their quest for an “iconic building”, when they already had one of the world’s most distinctive libraries, the Council placed a financialised time bomb under not just the Library of Birmingham, but the entire rest of Birmingham’s library network.

This is another problem with Birmingham Central Library-it reminds people of a better time in the city’s history.

As recently as when I was at primary school, the city council-whilst cash strapped and wrestingling with extensive problems wrought by de-industrialisation-had a distinctive social democratic agenda attuned to what it saw as the city’s problems. Today it is like a mild, British version of that other deflated motortown: Detroit. Struggling in the face of potential bankruptcy to keep basic services running and fighting hard to avoid takeover by central government or even dissolution, cannot even offer the city’s residents the consolations of culture and the confidence that they’ll be a brighter future.

At a time when even its most enthusiastic boosters see Birmingham’s future as being a satellite of London, you can see why the mood in Victoria Square and beyond is towards erasing the traces of the time when Birmingham a the great success story of the post-war reconstruction. So the Birmingham Post&Mail Building must go to be replaced by an underground car park, so the Central TV Studios must follow Pebble Mill into the dust and the Central Library must make way for office space.

Capital tends towards concentration, to efficiently achieve this it requires homogeneity. Birmingham seems hell bent on achieving homogeneity. Small boys grow up, civic buildings get knocked down, the past spools behind us like so much chewed up magnetic tape. Lost and outmoded as the hopes they embody might be, we really do need to ensure that what remains of our post-war inheritance isn’t wantonly destroyed.

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7 thoughts on “Birmingham Central Library

  1. As a child of 1962 I share your distress at the destruction of Birmingham infrastructure . Another ridiculous project was the rebuilding of New Street Station, I understand without an single improvement to train capacity. Now cuts to subsidy at Birmingham Rep threaten work there – the one theatre in Birmingham that has attempted to document Birmingham lives on stage. It is slowly becoming a identikit city of bland ugly flats and losing its heart.

  2. Great blog post, showing human connection to and within the old Central Library. But also, tragically, the wholly uncritical inhuman march ‘forwards’ that is costing ordinary people more than some realise and others care to admit.

  3. But on the other hand, let’s not get too nostalgic: The Central Library was a brutal attempt in the 60s and 70s to stamp out the longer architectural history of the area – JH Chamberlain’s Central Library was a renaissance style palazzo, sacrificed to the inner ring road in 1960.
    I worked in the Central Library for about a decade prior to its closure and, while I can’t say I saw it at its best, the complete absence of daylight had a very bad effect on my attitude to the place. That and the fact that the escalators never worked.
    I was lucky enough to grow up in Leeds, with its equally Victorian renaissance-style library, happily still standing and still operating today
    Birmingham doesn’t modernise, it just knocks down, rebuilds and makes new mistakes

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