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Redcar should think again about flattening its ABK library

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Save Redcar library, and all its embodied energy, and environmentally retrofit instead, says Paul Finch

Last week I discussed extending the life of a building from the 1790s; this week we are talking about the 1970s, that half-forgotten decade of industrial conflict and general decline, stuck between the dynamism of the 1960s and the scary invigoration of Thatcher’s 1980s. British architecture did not go through a particularly distinguished period, stuck in the middle of a perceived need for change but without the clients or the leaders to quite bring it about.

There were, on the other hand, good buildings. One of them was the library in Redcar, by Ahrends Burton & Koralek, one of the UK’s most interesting post-war practices, whose professional life was disrupted by the Prince of Wales in 1984 as a result of a foolish intervention about which no more should be said (at least here).

The practice’s earliest success was the award-winning library for Trinity College, Dublin; a later library for Maidenhead Council in the mid-1970s is now listed, and the Redcar library should be listed too. An application has been made by the Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage seems to be supportive.

Unhappily, the reason for the listing request is to halt plans to demolish the library, a hymn to steel architecture reflecting Redcar’s steel-making history.

Amazingly, the demolition proposal comes from none other than Redcar Council. Amazing on several counts. First, the selfsame council fought a battle with central government in the early 70s to establish the right to build its own library free of Whitehall diktat – and proceeded to commission ABK to design a fine building, complete with innovative features such as a café, which has served the community ever since.

Second, the demolition is to make way for a rather grandiose council-led multi-use complex which seems to have been dreamt up in a pre-recession, pre-coalition, pre-lower carbon era. Come to think of it, it is the sort of project people used to dream up in the 1970s, like new town halls, that gave local authorities a bad name.

Third, the argument has been put forward that demolition is necessary because the library doesn’t meet today’s energy standards. I have news for Redcar’s councillors: virtually no building they own or run or take council tax from meets today’s standards. The idea that should prompt demolition is absurd. ABK has offered to design a low-cost revamp of a building which actually looks pretty good environmentally. Double glazing needn’t cost too much, and had Redcar bothered to inquire, they would have found that ABK has a track record of environmental investigation and research well ahead of its time.

Finally, in an era when we should be thinking about extending the life of buildings to save all that embodied energy, improving and re-using where necessary, the council’s replacement plan starts to look like something out of the ark. It is not as though central Redcar is Piccadilly Circus; sites are not in restricted supply. What appears to be restricted is municipal imagination. The library is a community centre, and indeed the proposals for the new leisure complex were put on public display in… the ABK building.

Nor is it the case that Redcar is blessed with a plethora of good contemporary buildings. And, alas, it is not alone in that. It has this one, however. And like any significant public building, the circumstances of its commissioning, its design, its materials and its construction, form part of the history of the town and its people.

The absent-minded destruction of buildings of this sort is not simply a matter of utilitarian necessity, or simple-minded functional proposition. It is a rejection of the people who fought to make it happen; it undermines collective memory and collective experience; and it is a condemnation of a particular sort of architecture produced to celebrate the town and its history.

It may not be too late the save this building from the wrong fate, even if the books have been moved out. Redcar should think again.

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