Sunday, 2 August 2015

The Irony in Birmingham's Libraries

Being a girl who was born and bred in Birmingham, I enjoy taking an interest and finding the best in the city, a city all too often criticised and portrayed in a negative light by the media. As I mentioned in my post about Brum's back to backs, it breaks my heart that countless, beautiful buildings were bulldozed during the redevelopment of the city in the 60's and 70's. When people criticise Birmingham for its abundance of brutalist concrete architecture and more recently, its futuristic, postmodern structures, they fail to note that Brum did have impressive, classical buildings once upon a time, rivaling those in "prettier" English cities. But they were heartlessly bulldozed by architects and council members who believed them to be "unfashionable". 

Birmingham's snazzy new library and its predecessors are a prime example of the irony in the destruction of the city's old architecture, and the money that Brum seems to burn irresponsibly on unfit buildings. 

Most modern Brummies, especially those of my generation, have just two structures in mind when thinking about their city's libraries - the brutalist Central Library, opened in 1974 and now destined for demolition, and of course, the striking Library of Birmingham, opened in 2013 and costing the breathtaking sum of £188.8 million. However, a beautiful Victorian structure, now mostly forgotten, took the shape of Birmingham's library before it's brutalist predecessor elbowed it into the scrapheap. Tragically standing for less than one hundred years, the Victorian library was opened in 1883 and demolished in 1974. My parents vaguely remember the building being boarded up and surrounded by makeshift barriers during their childhoods. The attractive, curved structure was laden with impressive pillars, and inside was a spectacular, natural light filled reading room in a cathedral like style. 

The contrast between this traditional, lovely design and the brutalism that replaced it is huge. Yes, there may be integrity in brutalist architecture, but there's no denying that the Central Library was incredibly evocative of the 60's and 70's and its harsh, bleak style was never going to be timeless. 

In an old photograph of the Victorian library (above), the clean statue of James Watt stands between the classical, Greek style town hall and the similarly designed library. The scene is very good looking and is far from the bleak Brum that replaced it. Fast forward to 2015... poor James Watt has been nudged into a concrete landscape, now standing in front of the Central Library. His dirty statue is almost invisible among the sea of dreary architecture... and I know which scene I prefer! 

The Town Hall, thankfully still standing, is neighbours with an obsolete 60's shopping centre and a patch of waste land, which I can only assume was once home to another short lived building. It's a sad scene, and it angers me that architects were allowed and even encouraged to destroy the city's classic style with no regard for the future. 

Brummies had understandably had enough of the ugly (sorry, but it's true) Central Library by the 2000's, and so the Library of Birmingham was planned. What a waste, knocking down a classic, beautiful library and replacing it with a concrete brute which people couldn't stand the sight of just forty years later. But rather than designing a classic, timeless structure for the new library, a futuristic, postmodern aesthetic was chosen, clashing un-elegantly with its neighbouring buildings and overshadowing its sister, The REP. 

The library is impressive and modern, and I do enjoy studying in its clean, calm environment and taking advantage of its bird's eye view gardens. But it's ridiculous that its opening hours have been cut so drastically because of a lack of funds. In February, the opening hours were reduced from seventy three a week, to just forty, and half of the staff were made redundant after less than two years. Perhaps if Birmingham's guardians didn't irresponsibly spend millions on unsatisfactory buildings and had appreciated the beauty and timelessness of its Victorian structures, there would be more money in the council's kitty to allow the public to get more use out of the new library. 

I appreciate that the Victorian library was a lot smaller and more space was needed, but was its total destruction necessary? Could it have been extended? Or used for something else? I hope that the new library stays standing until it's falling apart, as it's incomprehensible price tag of £188.8 million needs to be justified. But my longing for the architecture of old Birmingham to be resurrected will go on! 


1 comment:

  1. Stumbled across your blog and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post! I too am a fan of classic, beautiful architecture and I am lucky that, living in Chester, I am mostly surrounded by it everyday. It is such a shame that some of the plainly offensive looking buildings that stand today have replaced such magnificent architecture that once stood. Keep up the blog posts like this one!

    Beth x