We should spot threatened libraries earlier, rather than spot-list late
A forward-thinking approach to the potential re-use of libraries is needed to avoid more losses like ABK’s Redcar Library, says English Heritage’s Roger Bowdler
The imminent demolition of ABK’s Redcar Library follows hard on its rejection for listing by the Heritage Minister, John Penrose. English Heritage had recommended it for listing, but the DCMS felt the case had not been made. It is not the first time that a modern library of distinction has been turned down; John Madin’s Birmingham central library (pictured below) also failed to make the cut, and the Mecanoo-designed replacement is already under construction. Holborn library currently awaits a decision too.
Decisions for listing are made by the minister: an elected and publicly accountable figure, provided with expert advice from English Heritage. That’s the system, and most of the time he is happy to agree with us.
Both Redcar and Birmingham libraries are distinctive buildings by eminent practices. Knowing where a local authority stands in terms of the buildings in its care becomes ever more desirable in times of lean funding. What are the options for keeping them? What can we afford to lose?
Post-war listing has done a fine job of identifying the bench-mark buildings against which other contenders will be judged and few modern libraries have received this accolade. Best-known is perhaps Basil Spence’s Swiss Cottage Library of 1964, a luminous cigar memorable for its spaciousness and slinky pairs of stairs, restored to Scandinavian sleekness in a recent restoration by John McAslan & Partners. Yet this building is also under possible review as Camden Council considers its options. Earlier libraries have been listed, from the local Carnegie lighthouse-of-learning types to the grand civic monuments such as Vincent Harris’ 1934 Manchester Central Library. What is the future for these temples of print in an age of IT?
Librarians have been pondering this for years; so too have architects. ABK’s Redcar Library was an early instance of a research-based design, carried out in tandem with the Department for Education and Science, which sought to introduce mixed uses and break down the mystique that kept some potential users outside the doors. Flexibility of use was one of the key concepts: a far cry from the rigid shelving and desks of earlier approaches. Happily, the other pioneering ABK library, at Maidenhead, is already listed and remains in vigorous health.
Identifying other key libraries in advance of closure is the only way to head off resorting to spot-listing which happens regularly. Local feelings run high, and the much-loved, if taken for granted, library suddenly assumes high heritage significance when its future is at stake. English Heritage wants to break free of this cycle of crisis and eleventh hour pronouncement; it places the minister in an awkward position when it comes to decision time, as plans are often advanced for disposal and even replacement. We identify significant examples, articulate their significance and let everyone know where they stand in terms of heritage value. A framework for identification and protection, the National Heritage Protection Plan, of which a national survey of library buildings forms a part, is being launched this month. Getting on the front foot is where we have to be if losses like Redcar Library are to be avoided.
Roger Bowdler is head of designation at English Heritage