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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)

  • Architectural monuments are the only physical reminders of a nation's cultural past and are as such of particular importance for society as a whole. From a historian's point of view, their identity-establishing role reaches far beyond questions of economic purpose or aesthetical appearance. Obviously, this view can be challenged, and there can be valuable reasons to replace listed buildings. However, if these reasons are clear from the beginning i.e. if the decision is made to replace the library, why ask EH for its assessment? It is disrespectful and makes a travesty of the procedure.

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  • Margret Hodge's lack of architectural appreciation is helping to lead Labour straight to a land slide defeat.
    Why should I put my faith in a PM who is unable to put down this bull destroying the china shop.

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  • English Heritage, as the appointed advisor to the MInister, has clear guidelines and employs experts to advise.

    It made its recommendations, based on law and planning policy, which is what it is required to do, and the Minister has the final say.

    And yes, in law a building is an artefact, to be judged on architectural merit.

    The c20th has also given its expert opinion on the merits of the building; it is perfectly entitled to do so, as indeed is any informed individual or organisation with regard to the listing process.

    It is in fact a fine building, worthy of retention and re-use.

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  • There needs to be a solidfying and hardening of efforts to get this thing saved.

    Whether you or not sympathise or tolerate modernism, a fool can tell from the pictures - and obviously from spending time in and around the place - that this is a genuinely attention-worthy building.

    A city's vitality and indentity comes from its built fabric. By removing such an obvious monument you deny a city its history and heritage.

    It's particularly crushing when we see the hollowness and hideousness of its replacement. Boom-time starchitecture at its worst.

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