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Hodge refuses to list Birmingham Central Library

  • 24 Comments

Architecture Minister Margaret Hodge has gone against English Heritage (EH) advice and rejected a bid to list Birmingham’s 1970s central library

The decision not to give heritage protection status to John Madin’s brutalist library (1974) opens the way for a large-scale, mixed-used development of the site led by Argent and the demolition of the famous concrete ‘inverted ziggurat’.

Both EH and the Twentieth Century Society have voiced their disappointment about Hodge’s rejection.

A spokesman for EH said: ‘[The building] is the largest civic (non-national) library in Europe [and] its boldly confident exterior defines an era of Birmingham’s recent history.’

‘In offering the Government our expert advice, we examined all aspects of its architectural interest including: whether it fulfilled its brief; whether it was a particularly good example of a public library; how well it survives; how it compares to other listed buildings of a similar type; and how influential the building has been. In our view, these tests were met.’

A Twentieth Century Society added: ‘Minister Margaret Hodge has made no secret of her personal dislike for post-war buildings and has here failed to understand the basic premise of heritage protection in England. [We are] tremendously disappointed by the Minister’s decision not to follow the advice of her advisers and list Birmingham Central Library. EH advice on listing is not often overturned and this is a key case in that regard.’

A spokesman for the Minister said: ‘This decision was finely balanced but the Minister concluded the building did not have sufficient historical or architectural importance to merit listing.’

It is understood CABE also felt the library was not worthy of listing and wrote to Hodge to that effect.

Others have also welcomed the decision. Architect Tom Hewitt, a design director at 3DReid’s Birmingham office, said: ‘I am proud to be from Birmingham and I can see some architectural merits of the existing library, especially in terms of its context relative to the period and the bravery of the design in that era… but I don’t like it and I never have.

‘I remember the emptiness of the left over space that sat below it, with parallels to Spaghetti junction – an uncomfortable block on a desolate concrete forest of supporting structure. Internally too the building felt bunker like.’

Postscript

English Heritage’s full comments

The Birmingham Library, designed by John Madin and opened in 1974, is the largest civic (non-national) library in Europe. Its boldly confident exterior defines an era of Birmingham’s recent history, and its careful internal planning makes it a successful example of an integrated modern facility.

English Heritage believes that the Library is worthy of Grade ll listed protection. Listing identifies whether a building is nationally important and not whether it must be kept. It is not a preservation order, simply a mark of special interest. Listed buildings can still be demolished once the case has been made and all other options have been explored.  We have been working with the City Council throughout, and maintain an open dialogue with them.

In offering the Government our expert advice, we examined all aspects of its architectural interest including: whether it fulfilled its brief; whether it was a particularly good example of a public library; how well it survives; how it compares to other listed buildings of a similar type; and how influential the building has been.  In our view, these tests were met.

We are naturally disappointed that [Margaret Hodge on behalf of] Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw came to a different conclusion and we believe many local people will be too.

Twentieth Century Society’s full comments

The Twentieth Century Society is tremendously disappointed by the Minister’s decision not to follow the advice of her advisers and list Birmingham Central Library. EH advice on listing is not often overturned and this is a key case in that regard. Minister Margaret Hodge has made no secret of her personal dislike for post-war buildings and has here failed to understand the basic premise of heritage protection in England.

Listing Birmingham’s impressive brutalist library would not prevent renovation work, or even a well-designed radical makeover. Libraries need to be flexible as the services  they provide will continue to evolve. We believe not only that the Central Library is historically and architecturally significant, but that it is capable of being adapted for the needs of 21st century Birmingham. What listing would do is make sure that proposals took into account the historic interest of these structures rather than seeking to change or even demolish them.

One of the key strengths of our heritage system is that listing is decided purely on the basis of architectural or historic interest. This then allows a detailed analysis of economic viability and wider social issues to follow. This  works very well and any problems that occur generally reflect lack of skills, experience and confidence of local authority planning departments and committees. The process does not require Margaret Hodge to fix it. BCL, designed by one of Birmingham’s most accomplished architectural sons, John Madin, could have another life. The Twentieth Century Society will continue working alongside the local groups who have done so much to push the debate forward

 

 

  • 24 Comments

Readers' comments (24)

  • Margaret Hodge is to be castigated not congratulated.

    This is the wrong decision.

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  • Very sad about this: what is the point in asking EH for an 'expert opinion' only to then ignore it? The building is a fantastic piece of 60s/70s civic architecture in the national context, and probably the best building of that era in Birmingham. Maybe it is not perfect as a library in the twenty-first century. There's no reason why the Mecanoo library shouldn't be built if that's what is wanted. Even if it were listed, the Madin library could be reimagined for some other function: Tate Modern Birmingham, say?

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  • Thank goodness Birmingham can be rid of this blight once and for all.

    The idea of keeping the main part as a Contemporary Art Museum is a seductive one but all this focuses on the only good part of the building: it's striking shape. Rather than just criticise the minister's decision (and the opinion of the city council and most Brummies), maybe readers should take in the full (un)glory of the building. Yes the ziggurat is interesting and individual, but the complex as a whole is clumsy, labyrinthine, straddles an outdated and terribly-design road junction and as a library, unfit for purpose.

    Maybe Birmingham can get something that connects the city centre instead of cutting it off. The building was a mistake in the first place.

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  • A blight?

    Weren't the Eiffel Tower, St Paul's Cathedral considered 'blights' soon after their completion?

    The council, and particular former members of, just seemed relentlessly pro shiny, new development in whatever form it took.

    Thousands seem happy to pass through the building so it hardly cuts off the centre- it could be a wonderful enclosed public piazza if all the junk food and crass, transient commericalism were swept away.

    Newness isn't the answer to everything, where would society...civilisation be if everything that were outdated was just demolished and started anew?

    It's correct to criticise a minister who ignores expert, professional opinion. Would you rather all government decision to be set by the tabloid press?

    Yes the building could be improved, indeed Madin's scheme was never completed as intended. But it needs to be preserved, if only as a (perfectly healthy and fit for purpose) memorial to a different architectural age. And what is England, over than a place stuffed with architectural memorials? Fashion should not enter the architectural debate. By all means throw away your old trainers, but not genuinely decent buildings.

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  • Does anyone think Mecanoo's is better and will stand the test of time?

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  • no mecanoos building will be demolised in 30 years time (it probly aready been budgeted for) welcome to birmingham the place than koohaus based the generic city on...

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  • The library is a beautiful building and a great example of it's type. Yes it's concrete, but it's elegant and interesting and the coffered ceilings are beautiful in their own way.
    Someone above commented on the fact that it breaks the flow of the city-centre, but for me it's the awful Copthorne Hotel that does that job - which also obsures the beautiful clock tower from view. It's like a massive physical and visual obstruction that divides the city centre - and hides the beauty of the library. Sad times...

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  • Does anyone think Mecanoo's is better and will stand the test of time?

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  • For the love of all things green - and Michela Strachan - where is the sustaina-o-sense of flattening this to merely replace it with more? Couldn't a Park Hill be done with it?

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  • It is not only EH’s judgment in relation to this case that should be challenged. Their role in general should be challenged.

    EH has influence because our cultural history is an obsession. We glorify the past because our future looks so bleak. China and India are increasingly challenging our global influence. For the sake of our own survival, we need to remain competitive in a changing world. Therefore any argument to list a building should include considerations regarding the community and the local economy as well.

    In the assessment by EH and TCS there is no reference to these aspects whatsoever. In their view, a building is an artefact. TCS sees this as a key strength. I see this as a key weakness. I have never seen the building but it seems to me that, with all its brutality, it is well able to suck the life out of Birmingham city centre. And as a consequence, the community and local economy will be compromised.

    Ultimately we will have to make a choice. Will we turn into Theme Park Britain, or will we regain control of our fate?

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