I went up to Birmingham today, to see a soon to vanish scene. In the middle of the city there stands, for now, a giant concrete building. The Birmingham Central Library. Simple, symmetrical, it sits atop a small hill bang in the middle of the city ‘twixt Chamberlain Square and Centenary Square.
The Central Library, a place of culture and learning, is about to be flattened to make way for …what? Shops, hotels, offices and a few, no doubt expensive, properties in a development that will look just like every other city development of these times. This building, probably more loathed than loved, has been replaced by another “marmite’ building, the Library of Birmingham on Centenary Square.
Irrespective of the building’s merits, it has been given more space to breathe, and it seems to me that that was where the old Central Library failed, not in the building itself, but in the drab hotels and food kiosks stuffed into and around a tiny walkway that linked the two squares. And in trying to create profit from public space, by squeezing in retail, drink and food, the civic authorities choked the flow of pedestrians and turned much opinion against this finest of late sixties/early seventies buildings.
Birmingham is surrounded by inner ring roads in tunnels or cuttings. There is no easy way for the pedestrian to walk from west of the centre, from Brindley Place, Broad Street and the Mailbox to the charms of the Selfridges spaceship and redeveloped Bull Ring in the east; nor indeed to the trendy bars and restaurants of St Paul’s to the north. Yet rather than address this real issue of connectivity, Birmingham seems to favour commercial development in piecemeal fashion, which for a city that purports to be England’s second leaves a feeling of fragmented public places with no pedestrian flow, no grace, no real heart.
Concrete brutalism and heart? Is that an oxymoron? Well, anyone familiar with Hamburg will have seen the concrete bunkers and leftover gun emplacements from the second world war that sheltered the masses from the allied air raids. Arid, stark, they rise in the north west and south east of the city. These Hamburg war relics have been turned into art space, studios and a club or two, a war necessity turned to human use.
If the extraneous tat in and around the old library had been taken away, the floor cleared dank corners lit, the core shell allowed to stand proud, we could have seen the Central Library for what it was. And the space around could have eased the flow between east and west, between retail and hedonism, between retail and culture, between offices and leisure. But we can now only dream of what might have been: an iconic, bold, strong symbol of the post war determination that rebuilt a city, given dignity and space to breathe.
But alas we say goodbye.
(The old Central Library was demolished in 2016)