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Birmingham's Brutalist library to be demolished

As Dutch practice Mecanoo designs a new Birmingham Central Library, Richard Vaughan looks at whether its predecessor will be missed.

Last week, Dutch practice Mecanoo saw off the might of firms such as Foster + Partners, OMA and Hopkins to win the coveted commission for a £193 million library in Birmingham (AJ online 05.08.08).

But while Birmingham City Council congratulated itself on resisting the charms of lofty names in favour of the less-renowned practice, the move spells the end for John Madin’s 1974 Brutalist Central Library.

To fund the scheme – which includes the complete redevelopment of the city’s Centenary Square, down to the entrance of shopping centre and office development the Mailbox and around city-centre site Paradise Circus (see map above right) – the council will need to sell its land assets for commercial development, including the land that Madin’s library sits on. The new library will be located next to Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

Mecanoo principal and co-founder Francine Houben says: ‘I’m always interested in incorporating the building with public space – I try to deal with grass and trees – and I hope to integrate that with Centenary Square.

‘There is a backbone through the centre of Birmingham, and it’s very interesting what the council has planned for this square, so I thought I could work with that.’

Houben admits she was aware that Madin’s building could be demolished, but says: ‘It’s a problem for the people of Birmingham to sort out.’

Council leader Mike Whitby calls the building a ‘blockage’, disrupting the council’s plans to create a ‘long view’ – a grand vista from the West End to the newly refurbished 1834 Grade I-listed town hall, by Hansom and Welsh.

‘We want connectivity,’ he says, ‘but it’s blocked by a monstrosity in between: brutalistic, incomplete, and it’s leaky. If we’re not careful we’ll lose the archive because it’s getting wet.’

Madin has labelled the council’s actions ‘disgraceful’ and claims his building could be brought up to 21st-century standards.

He says: ‘Selling the land on for commercial development just to make a profit is disgraceful.

I pity the architects who have just a few months to come with a design for a library on what is a tremendously difficult site. It took me seven years of research to design that building and it was designed to be fit for purpose in the 21st century.’

English Heritage has recommended the building for listing, and the future of the building is to be decided by architecture minister Margaret Hodge.

Joe Holyoak, a Birmingham-based architect and member of campaign group Friends of the Central Library, says the council’s actions are akin to the way Victorian buildings – including the predecessor to Madin’s library – were treated in the 1970s.

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