Birmingham Central Library (Brutalist)

Birmingham Central Library was the main public library in Birmingham, England from 1974 until 2013. For a time the largest non-national library in Europe, it closed on 29 June 2013 and was replaced with the Library of Birmingham. The existing building is currently being demolished after 41 years, as part of the redevelopment of Paradise Circus by Argent Group. Designed by architect, John Madin in the brutalist style, the library was part of an ambitious development project by Birmingham City Council to create a civic centre on its new Inner Ring Road system; however due to economic reasons significant parts of the masterplan were not completed and quality was reduced on materials as an economic measure. Two previous libraries occupied the adjacent site before Madin’s library opened in 1974. The previous library was opened in 1883 and was designed by John Henry Chamberlain featuring a tall clerestoried reading room, this was demolished in 1974 after the new library had opened.

Despite the original vision not being fully implemented the library has gained architectural praise as an icon of British Brutalism with its stark use of concrete, bold geometry, inverted ziggurat sculptural form and monumental scale. Its style was seen at the time as a symbol of social progressivism. Based on this, English Heritage applied and failed twice for the building to gain listed status. However, due to strong opposition from Birmingham City Council the building gained immunity from listing until 2016.

In 2010–11 Central Library was the second most visited library in the country with 1,197,350 visitors.

The building of the (now former) Central Library was opened on 12 January 1974, and was designed by John Madin, a Birmingham-based architect.[9] Its inverted ziggurat form is a powerful example of the Brutalist style. With the Rotunda and the Alpha Tower, it is one of Birmingham’s key Modernist buildings.

Madin designed the Central Library as part of a large civic centre scheme on the newly created Paradise Circus site. Originally planned to be built alongside the library was a School of Music, Drama Centre, Athletic Institute, offices, shops, public house, a car park with 500 spaces and a bus interchange. The collection of civic buildings were all to be connected by high level walkways and the network of galleries which bridge the roads. The School of Music and a public house (The Yardbird) were the only other buildings in the original plans to be built and the high level walkways were never completed.

The Central Library consisted of two elements: the extrovert lending library and the introvert reference library. The lending library was designed for heavy use and short visits. It forms a wing to the reference library and is of three storeys with a curved façade facing the Town Hall. The reference library is an eight storey square block designed around an open atrium above a public square that was designed to be entered from four sides. Above the square float the cantilevered floors of the library in a distinctive inverted ziggurat formation. The designers drew inspiration for the design from Antonio Sant’Elia’s drawings of Casa a gradinata and Marcel Breuer’s 1928 scheme for a hospital at Elberfeld, Indiana; another source of inspiration was Leslie Martin’s Bodleian Law Library in Oxford. It is noted that they drew inspiration from the similar design for Boston City Hall, although a member of Madin’s design team said they had only seen this design after the library was complete.

The central atrium is completely glazed behind deep concrete balconies; this arrangement was to make it conducive to study. Although there was good natural light, the design was an early recognition of solar gain and the damage it can cause to books. The large windows of the reference library face inwards to reduce traffic noise from the Inner Ring road. On the outside the windows are high level narrow strips with black anodised window frames. The space below the central atrium of the library was designed to define a civic square with gardens, pools, waterfalls and fountains and to potentially form an open air exhibition space. Six pools were to be placed in and around this square; one of these can still be seen on the north side of the library. Madin also designed the semi-circular amphitheatre around the Chamberlain Memorial in Chamberlain Square to frame the entrance to the library and the new civic square.

The structure is supported on a square set of twelve reinforced concrete columns, built over the Inner Ring road and the uncompleted bus interchange. The bus bays imposed a 36 ft pier spacing on the main block, and led to the standardization of a 1 ft 6in module for the design. Concrete is strongly expressed within the building, the external finishes to structural elements are unclad reinforced concrete. The walls have been ribbed and the locally graded round aggregate is exposed by abrasive blasting. The floors are made of precast concrete coffered units over which a reinforced concrete floor was cast. For the cladding Madin offered the council a choice of Portland Stone or Travertine Marble to align with the adjacent civic buildings. A third cheaper option was pre-cast concrete with Hoptonwood limestone and Derbyshire spar aggregate with white cement offered by Alan Maudsley the City Architect and accepted by the council as an economic measure.

The entrance hall is a long tall space. The entrance hall, which is double height between the lending and reference libraries, is entirely glazed on the side facing the atrium and is an early example of a freestanding wall made of toughened glass. Before later developments the wall allowed the entrance to be flooded with light and provided views of the Town Hall from the escalators.

The library aimed to provide open access to all 900,000 of its volumes. No basement was possible because of the low level roads beneath the library and a tall book stack was deemed inappropriate because of the desire to keep the height of the building low, so it did not overwhelm the surrounding buildings. Storage of the volumes is on the same level as the reading areas, this dual purpose led to the low ceiling height of three metres. Space was opened up in the reference library by opening up sections of the floors into double height reading spaces. The furniture for the library was specified by the architects with the preference for oak veneer book stacks and black linoleum floor covering.

When built, the central library provided approximately 250,000 ft² of floor space, making it the largest non-national municipal library in Europe. It was specifically designed for a long life and to stand hard wear with low maintenance costs.

Later developments

The council failed to implement the original plan for Paradise Circus. Spending cuts led to the council’s decision to sell off the land surrounding the library, ending the vision of a publicly financed and owned civic centre occupying the entire site.

The 200 seat Library Theatre was built between the School of Music and the reference library block in 1983–86. The theatre was a design and build scheme by Henry Boot Projects. Although the design was in Madin’s original plans, Madin did not approve of the design and build method and subsequently had no involvement in the building. Chamberlain House and the Copthorne Hotel were built to the west of the library in 1985–87 by Leonard J. Multon & Partners with wedge shaped ends. In an October 1988 television documentary A Vision of Britain, Prince Charles attacked the building saying it looked like “a place where books are incinerated, not kept”.

To the north of the library where an Athletic Institute was originally to be built a six storey office block was built in 1988–89 by Leonard J. Multon & Partners. A footbridge connecting the library with Centenary Square was added as part of improvements to the square in 1988–89. The atrium was enclosed with a glass roof and screens by the City Architect’s Department in 1989–91.The space below was named Paradise Forum, originally proposed as an alfresco eating and entertainment area but eventually leased to property companies who sublet the units to shops and fast food outlet tenants. The uncompleted bus interchange became service areas for the tenants of Paradise Forum. In 1999 the whole of Paradise Forum was sold off to Argent Group.

In 1999, a member of the public was almost hit by a small piece of concrete that fell from a cladding panel. Concerns over the condition of the pre-cast cladding panels required the installation of netting to retain any further erosion. The entrance from Chamberlain Square was altered by the city’s Urban Design team in 2001 creating a lobby and eliminating the effect of the original tall entrance hall. In July 2010, the east side of the lending library was decorated with painted birds, the work of Lucy Mclauchlan.

The appearance of the library building has also been criticised, mostly due to the staining of the cladding panels which were originally white and were never cleaned. In October 2011 the World Monuments Fund included Central Library on its watch list of significant buildings at risk.

Closure and demolition

Birmingham City Council had long planned to move library services away from Central Library to leave the building free for redevelopment of Paradise Circus. The Paradise Circus site was sold by the Council in 1998 to Argent Group, this spelt an end to Central Library.

In 2004 an initial plan to move to a Richard Rogers designed building in Eastside didn’t materialise. A site 150m west of the current building at Centenary Square was chosen in 2007 and subsequently the new Library of Birmingham was built and opened on 3 September 2013. In the intervening years Argent Group produced plans for the Paradise Circus site which did not intend to retain the library building. In response to potential demolition English Heritage applied on two occasions for the building to be listed. On both occasions the library was refused status as a listed building after lobbying from Birmingham City Council. In February 2011 the library received a 5-year Certificate of Immunity from Listing after an application from Birmingham City Council, which meant it could not be protected from demolition until 2016. The library closed on 29 June 2013 and books and archives were moved across to the Library of Birmingham. Planning Application 2012/05116/PA was approved by the City Council on 8 February 2013.

The commercial outlets of Paradise Forum closed in January 2015 and the library site was fenced off except for the pedestrian route through the library linking Chamberlain and Centenary Squares. Internal demolition of the library took place in the Summer and Autumn of 2015. On 1 November 2015, Paradise Forum was closed to pedestrians and Chamberlain Square was fenced off for external demolition to take place. Visible external demolition to the main library building began on 6 November 2015. On 15 November 2015 the road tunnel beneath the library permanently closed to traffic for demolition to progress. On 14 December 2015 the first exterior concrete panels to the reference library were removed to mark the start of significant demolition. On 28 January 2016 the curved facade of the lending library began to be demolished.

Campaigns to save the building

Several campaign groups were set up to save the library building from demolition. Groups such as Friends of Central Library, 20th Century Society, English Heritage and World Monuments Fund supported the retention of the library.

English Heritage applied twice in 2002 and 2007 for Central Library to be listed. On both occasions the Minister for Culture refused the application. The second time the building failed to be listed Margaret Hodge, the Minister for Culture at the time stated, “the building did not have sufficient historical or architectural importance to merit listing”. In 2009, following an application from Birmingham City Council for a Certificate of Immunity from Listing, Margaret Hodge signed the certificate which would be in place until 2016.

In 2011 the World Monuments Fund included the library on its watch list along with Preston bus station stating that the buildings were dramatically sited and uncompromising in their stark use of concrete and powerfully structural forms. They brought a sense of the monumental to the British urban landscape at the time of their construction and remain architectural icons. It was hoped that placing these buildings on the watch list would open dialogue into their protection and alternatives for adaptive reuse. Preston bus station was saved from demolition and listed at Grade II in September 2013; however dialogue on the demolition of Central Library did not progress.

A fresh appreciation of the library began to emerge as the Council declared their intention to demolish it. The movement was led by artists and writers mainly of the 1960s generation who had grown up with it. Jonathan Meades appreciated the ‘guts and attack’ of the library and spoke negatively of the Council’s policies stating “you don’t get a car and never get it serviced”. Brutalist architecture was becoming more appreciated in the 21st Century with the listing of Preston bus station, Trellick Tower and the rejuvenation of Park Hill in Sheffield. Books celebrating brutalism were published and television shows featuring brutalist buildings began to feature with greater regularity. Central library was chosen as the location of MI5 HQ in BBC series The Game.

Friends of Central Library presented an alternative plan to the Council and its developers which retained the library at the centre of the Paradise Circus scheme. It argued that the library could be used for a range of alternative uses and demolition after 40 years went against all principles of sustainability. However Birmingham City Council, Birmingham Civic Society, CABE and Argent Group strongly opposed any plans to retain the library and consequently the battle was lost.

Other Information

Built:  1974
Demolished:  2013
Architect:  John Madin

Contact

  • Birmingham Central Library, Birmingham, United Kingdom

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