Comment: Gone but not forgotten – but will Birmingham ever learn?

Mary Keating, from campaign group Brutiful Birmingham, asks why Birmingham seems to dislike its Brutalist history so much

Birmingham’s Central Library before demolition

The Twentieth Century Society has just published its top ten list of great lost UK buildings. Birmingham’s old Central Library, designed by John Madin, comes in at number four.

In an act of vandalism – for which Birmingham City Council and former Minister of State Margaret Hodge should be ashamed – the demolition of the library began in December 2015. This was four weeks before the Certificate of Immunity from statutory listing ran out. There is no doubt that Historic England would have supported an application for grade II listing of the library in 2015 and it is almost certain that, on this occasion, it would have been approved by the Secretary of State for Culture.

Central Library – love or hate its Brutalist appearance – was internationally renowned as an original and unique piece of architecture, yet the Government declined to agree listing in both 2003 and 2009, despite Historic England’s recommendation.

In 2011, the World Monuments Fund listed it as one of the top ten most threatened buildings in the world that should be saved.

So has Birmingham learned anything from this farce? It appears not.

The majority of our Birmingham Post columns have judged the way councillors, and particularly the planning committee, appear to think their personal opinion overrides anything the “experts” might say. Lord Rooker’s recent letter to this newspaper denigrated this culture of ignorance that pervades the work of the planning committee.

The fight to save Central Library ran for over ten years. Friends of the Central Library was established in 2006 with the intention of alerting the city council to the positive features of the building, despite the fact little of Madin’s original plan for its environment had been realised. The original design included water gardens, trees and other planting and the building itself was supposed to be faced in Portland stone. None of these features ever saw the light of day and now what was publicly owned land has been privatised.

In September 2015, a small group of dedicated enthusiasts came together as ‘Brutiful Birmingham’, determined to persuade the city council to put a hold on the demolition of the Central Library. We raised a petition, lobbied councillors, delivered an open letter signed by experts and a giant Christmas card signed by hundreds of members of the public. We spoke to journalists and the BBC. A strong body of support was galvanised across the country and internationally.

We had until January 11, when the Certificate of Immunity ran out, to ward off the concrete cruncher. We were making a last-ditch attempt to save the building.

Sadly, for future generations of Brummies and the world, we failed, and the chance to create a new life for this iconic building as the centrepiece of the new Paradise development was lost. We might have been more reconciled if the replacement vision had architectural merit. You can judge this for yourselves because one boring, bland, black-clad building has now been built.

History in the making? I think not. I doubt the World Monuments Fund will have this on their endangered list in the future.

Of course, a finger can also be pointed at the architects who take on the design commissions for such developments and then disregard the architectural and heritage value of existing buildings. They also have a professional responsibility to ensure that every measure is taken to retain exceptional architecture, especially where its preservation is supported by expert opinion.

Certificates of Immunity make it easy for architects and developers to pre-empt any challenges to their plans for demolition. The certificates clearly imply that a building might indeed merit statutory listing, as is the case with the Ringway Centre in Smallbrook Queensway, the Chambers of Commerce in Edgbaston and 123 Hagley Road.

We mourn the loss of the Central Library as we do the loss of other significant buildings in Birmingham: the Post & Mail Tower in Colmore Circus (1961-66), NatWest Tower, in Colmore Row (1964-75) and the BBC Pebble Mill Studios (1961-71), in Bristol Road, Edgbaston.

These iconic buildings, many designed by John Madin, incorporated a number of firsts. When it opened, Central Library was the largest non-capital city library in Europe. Both the Post & Mail Tower and the Central Library involved innovative use of glass. The double height glass and internal concrete balconies of Central Library afforded views out to the atrium for visitors while protecting the books from the damage done by direct sunlight.

These are just some of the criteria, recognised in the listings of the Twentieth Century Society and the World Monuments Fund, which would have justified statutory listing of the Central Library.

In its rush to develop new and glossy areas of the city, Birmingham should learn the lesson of the loss of the library and recognise the merits of the best buildings of the second half of the 20th century before this architectural period is entirely obliterated.

The Guardian recently published a dozen pictures from around the world of Brutalist architecture under threat or destroyed – Central Library was its British example.

Mary Keating represents the Brutiful Brum group which campaigns to preserve Birmingham’s remaining Brutalist buildings

A few comments:

BemuseofBrum: “The  point about Madin’s design is that it was original, if it had been finished as he intended it would have been a unique and beautiful addition to the Birmingham skyline. Instead, the city fathers of the 60’s down graded the design and finish to save money. Typically, today’s planners are so short sighted they failed to see the gem before them, they have wasted vast amounts of money on a very expensive and not particularly good building,  which they now find they can’t afford to keep open. Refurbishing the old library in the style originally proposed by Madin would have cost far less than its entire replacement.  As it is, the site is being redeveloped for purely commercial reasons, which I suppose is the main reason for the old library’s demolition.  Its  a great shame the new buildings designs are boring, they lack a modicum of the flair once offered by the old library, after all they are a centre piece for our city and should be exceptional, why can’t we have something exciting and cutting edge for a change”.

Zeppelin836: “The new Library of Birmingham is ugly as sin. It may be sophisticated and state-of-the-art, but it is still boxy, brutal and hideously over-embellished. It’s as out of place and equally overrated as the Selfridges building and the Cube in my view.  What is it about this city that loves repeatedly sticking these fat, ugly, squat monstrosities where they are, spoiling the vistas and views whichever street or right of way you happen to look down ? I’m talking about these examples as well as the new Snow Hill 3 monster being built right now [would have been better planned twice the height and half the width/girth, thus being sleek and attractive], as well as the mediocre rubbish that Madin’s Library is being replaced with now in the ironically-named ‘Paradise Blandscape’ development….”

Keith Bracey: “I would have liked the old Birmingham Central Library saved and the building turned into a ‘Made in Birmingham’ visitor attraction using all of the artefacts which are stored in the Museums Collection Centre in Dollmann Street Nechells left over from the old Birmingham Science Museum…..It would have been great to see the old Spitfire and Hurricane suspended in the atrium as if flying and the Birmingham locomotive displayed on the ground floor…..we should recycle buildings as we recycle other things in my opinion…….a great opportunity lost to celebrate Birmingham’s manufacturing heritage…”

DH69: “It only cut the city in half because Birmingham planners allowed the open ground floor to be filled in with shops and Hell-hole food joints in true Birmingham tradition. Honestly if you look at pictures of when it was first completed you’ll be amazed at the original scale of its open arches – later filled in with the shops – and a completely open freedom to roam with endless open space”.

– To see the original article with picutes of the Paradise site, go to