With its £193m replacement being constructed a mere few hundred yards away, the present incarnation (the third in total) seen above of Birmingham’s much-maligned Central Library’s days are numbered. Designed by Moseley-born architect John Madin and completed in 1974 the structure aesthetically has somewhat divided opinion with attempts being made in recent years to have the building listed being juxtaposed with the much reported comments of Prince Charles that it resembled somewhere books would be incinerated as opposed to stored and causing the City’s Director of Planning Clive Dutton to refer to it as a “concrete monstrosity“.
With its 5,000 visitors today and plethora of books, multimedia and specialist collection resources the Central Library certainly fulfils its primary purpose and no comment as to its appearance should detract from that. However, despite recent attempts to add to its aesthetic appeal with external artwork, the building remains a relatively high flyer in various ‘Uk’s Ugliest Building’ polls. Indeed if it is to be believed that Madin’s original plans saw the building constructed in budget-busting marble it still could be argued that the somewhat brutalist shape of the structure and rather minimalist use of externally viewable windows would still have led to much discontent.
As was mentioned earlier this particular incarnation of the Birmingham Central Library is the third to grace the City with the original burning down in the 19th century which was then replaced with two separate libraries including the Gothic-styled Birmingham Reference Library which opened in 1882. It is from here that one of the principle problems with the current library stems in that it sits at the heart of what was, and to an extent still is, a Bastian of Victorian/Gothic civic buildings. The Town Hall, the Council House, The Birmingham and Midland Institute, the Stock Exchange and the Birmingham School of Art are all around the part of the City occupied by the Central Library and are architecturally grandiose and fascinating structures (as are many around Margaret Street, Edmund Street with the ‘old’ library and Reference Library also in a similarly grand style) and then, for some reason of late 1960s urban regeneration it was seen as prudent to clear the way for placing an edifice of modernity right in the middle of them (and sweeping some such buildings aside in the process). It can be argued that this is one of the principle problems with the current Birmingham Central Library; its complete conflict with the architecture of that which surrounds it.
Recalling the Library in the 1980s it also suffered from a sense of abandonment (as did many areas of the City Centre during the late-1970s to early 1980s) with Paradise Forum, over which it sits, forming a semi-derelict ‘wind tunnel’ until the restructuring of the roadway to the rear and its enclosure with doors at either end.
Whilst repeated attempts have been made to rejuvenate the site and its surroundings (including the equally woeful Council House Extension and Fletcher’s Walk sites), it appears that as Birmingham lurches forward into another phase of ‘mass regeneration’ (this time appearing to be trying to address the flaws of the 1960s and 1970s) the redevelopment of Paradise Circus and the adjacent Arena Central development are set to see the demolition of the current library and surrounding site with 2013 seeing the opening of the new Birmingham Central Library currently under construction on Broad Street.