The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Library Story: A History of Birmingham Central Library

Alan Clawley (216pp, £15)

Reviewed by Lou Robson

Alan Clawley has been the most dogged supporter of Birmingham’s Central Library over the decade and a half leading up to its demise. While Library Story pays tribute to John Madin’s notable architecture, it’s as much about the myths, propaganda and blinkered thinking that allowed the power-brokers of Birmingham to destroy one of Britain’s most significant modernist buildings. The machinations that undermined the seven-storey ziggurat – one of the best municipal libraries in Europe – are comprehensively documented. As Andy Foster says in his introduction: ‘Here was a masterpiece in front of our eyes and yet every influential person in Birmingham has colluded in pulling it down.’ For Clawley, the library’s tragedy was its location on Paradise Circus, at the centre of Birmingham’s civic life, on a plot of land coveted by a commercial property developer.

The library, opened in 1974 by Harold Wilson, lasted longer than the principal architect of its demise – Sir Albert Bore, who stood down in October 2015 amid criticisms of his leadership of Birmingham City Council. Just before Christmas, a concrete cruncher moved in and removed enough of Madin’s ziggurat to jeopardise its structure.

Library Story is less about architecture than what happens to it when people who know little of its value decide they want to be global players. It charts the sixteen years since 1999, when it was decided that Birmingham needed to lure big business to the city centre, and bid for European City of Culture, 2008. The site on Paradise Circus and the future of the building were crucial to both ambitions. ‘The council still owned most of the land there and could expect to make a healthy return by selling its freehold interests to a private property developer’, writes Clawley. Meanwhile, plans went ahead for a new super-library by Richard Rogers on the other side of the city, at Eastside.

The Rogers library never went ahead and the Eastside site was abandoned. Even after Bore’s Labour group lost council control to Mike Whitby’s Conservative Lib Dem coalition, Birmingham pressed on with plans to replace Madin’s masterpiece. Chief librarian Brian Gambles spent the last five years of his tenure talking down the library of which he was custodian, and presiding over the replacement of a building holding two million books by a metal-clad edifice with half the stock and half the staff.

Attempts to list the Central Library date back to 2003, and gathered pace throughout the decade. After two years of delay, the heritage minister Margaret Hodge turned down the application in 2009, in the face of advice from English Heritage (now Historic England) and representations by C20.

Demolition of the library began last December, conveniently timed before the building’s Certificate of Immunity expired in January, after which a further attempt would have been made to list it. Whatever the motives, it was surely a tacit acknowledgement by the developers and the council that the building might have been saved, even at that late date.

Available for £15 inc p&p. Cheque, payable to ‘Friends of the Central Library’ to: Iqbal Basi, 23 Watson Road, Woodcross, Bilston, WV14 9RY or call 07906 041815 to pay by bank transfer.