More revealing than the Kerslake Report

Library Story: a history of Birmingham Central Library by Alan Clawley
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“I read book once,” says Mr Heslop — played by Brian Glover — in Porridge, “green it was.” And I’m fairly sure if the green book Mr Heslop had read was on architecture or morality then it was one more book than any of the people involved in the decision to demolish John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library have ever skimmed.

I’ve just read a book, called Library Story, by long time campaigner for the library Alan Clawley — which is nothing more than heartbreaking as it reveals how influence and patronage rips through the city, how the cosy collusion of the media — it’s a small town, after all — allows scrutiny to be sidelined. And it shows just how decisions are taken, and defended against logic.

What the book isn’t is a book about the building, or really about about the history of its use. It moves very quickly from construction and opening to the campaign to prevent demolition. But that campaign, doggedly and determinedly helmed by the author reveals more about decision making in Birmingham than anything the Kerslake Report has done, and more than a million council consultation events will ever do.

It’s a story about a city’s confidence, aspiration and incompetence. It shows administration after administration casting about for quick fixes to declining industries and lack of identity and money. It shows Labour, Conservative and Liberal alike turning around on themselves, desperately looking for something that will make them look good: going after business tourism, then sports tourism, then looking to cultural competitions to boost the city’s image, and eventually buttering up and holding out the begging bowl across the Middle East to anyone with a few million to invest on bland A1 office space.

The misinformation from officials and councillors — unchallenged by anyone in the fourth estate — that the building was ‘crumbling’, the spin about ‘concrete cancer’, the misdirection about who is to benefit — and who it to pay — for the new library, each was painstakingly fisked by Alan who never stops asking awkward questions and each sidestep from them is clear to see.

When Mike Whitby’s council asked the government for the immunity from listing that all but sealed the building’s fate a cavalcade of Birmingham’s organisations and businesses lined up to support him; and the strong suspicion is that were unduly influenced.

“38 organisations that wrote letters supporting the Council’s application [were from] the commercial property sector, the universities, health, arts, and the voluntary sector, but they were all dependant on the Council in one way or another… Many of the letters followed a standard format contained identical phrases that must have been supplied by the council. ‘has not stood the test of time’ (in 4 letters); ‘no longer fit for purpose’, ‘dull and dated exterior’, ‘poor levels of daylight’ (in 11 letters); ‘lack of transparency’, ‘removal essential to enable a comprehensive connectivity’ (in 8 letters), ‘inherent inflexibility of design’ (10 times)… The following sentence was repeated verbatim in 12 letters:  The appearance of the building acts as a barrier to certain groups repelling people that the service wants to attract, including people at risk of social exclusion and some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.”

The campaign itself was carried out mainly in the comment and letters pages of the Birmingham Post, rebutting and questioning the announcements and pronouncements. But each stage involved patient probing and detailed freedom of information requests: nothing was ever discussed openly in public.

The book is a fantastic primer on how democracy — and planning — really works in Birmingham. It can get dull in places, but then that’s local democracy.

If it were a heartwarming British film, the story would end with Jeremy Hunt (played by Jack Davenport, probably) seeing the scales fall from his eyes, and making an announcement to hastily assembled hacks outside the Council House — backed by cheers of comic grotesques in flat caps. It doesn’t, it rather peters out: the book went to print before the bastards cheered and the building fell.

As you reach the end of the story and hit the authoritative notes, the building is still there, although the hope isn’t.

Library Story is now out, £15 inc p+p. Order copies by emailing Friends of Birmingham Central Library at brutiful2015@gmail.com

By Jon Bounds

14th Most Influential Person in the West Midlands 2008, subsequently not placed.

His new book about visiting every seaside pier in England and Wales — Pier Review — has been described as “On the Road meets On the Buses”, it’s out now.

Jon wrote and directed the first ever piece of drama to be performed on Twitter and founded the famous blog Birmingham: It’s Not Shit.

14th Most Influential Person in the West Midlands 2008, subsequently not placed.

His new book about visiting every seaside pier in England and Wales — Pier Review — has been described as “On the Road meets On the Buses”, it’s out now.

Jon wrote and directed the first ever piece of drama to be performed on Twitter and founded the famous blog Birmingham: It’s Not Shit.

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  • Getafix

    Nice review. I remember speaking to Terry Grimley once about Madin. I was take aback by his loathing for Madin’s work. As the arts corespondent of the Post I had hoped that he might at least have some appreciation for the city’s best modern buildings, but he was a classic Brummy demolisher, like so many others.

    You’re right that Brum is run like a small town with little in the way of quality or well informed debate. But looking at what is going on in London right now, it feels like even the capital city doesn’t have many defenders against corporate greed and stupidity, although at least they do appear to have saved London’s Smithfield Markets. Imagine how differnent our own City would be today if the idiots in the 70s had preserved Jamaica Row and the wonderful old wholesale markets, let alone the Bull Ring itself.

    Clive Dutton was another one I met whose lack of real understanding about what made successful cities work was striking. He used to show a slide presentation on Brum called “Polishing the Diamond” – the title had me in stitches. He seemed to have no sense of irony, believing that his recipe of wholesale clearance and cheap developer-led ‘regeneration’ was the solution Brum had been waiting for (failing to realise it was exactly what the city had been doing for decades).

    It seems those who run the city are on a mission to erase any real character, quality and interest from the city’s built fabric. The tragic thing is that they always seem to think they are doing things differently when they’re all just the heirs of Herbert Manzoni.

    Madin’s Central Library was of course the product of an earlier period of Brummy destruction and self mutilation and I’ve always suspected that for an older generation the association was too strong between what was lost in the 60s and 70s and Madin’s building to allow them to see the quality of the concrete library. It came to be seen as a symbol of the city’s philistinism rather than as a wonderful building in its own right.

    There is so much awful architecture in Brum, from every recent decade, and yet we always seem to single out the few decent buildings we have for demolition. It’s like a psychosis.

    I’ve often thought someone should write a play or novel about the repeating cycles of destruction and poor quality rebuilding that seem to define the city. May be this book provides the source material.

    • Terry Grimley

      Andy Foster, is that you?

      If Getafix is Andy Foster he should have the decency to put his name to the libellous description of me as “a classic Brummy demolisher”. If he is not it’s an odd coincidence, as I do very clearly remember a conversation with Andy about the Central Library which went like this:

      Andy {challengingly]: “What don’t you like about it?”
      Me: “I don’t like what it does to the Council House Extension.”
      Andy [hurt]: “Well, you have picked on the weakest aspect of it there…”

      Weak? An abomination, more like. As are other aspects of Madin’s wider civic centre scheme – above all the Conservatoire, for which I still await some sort of explanation.

      Many years ago I suggested in print that this unspeakable building represented “the lowest point in civic architecture since the Middle Ages”. Of course this remark is flawed because it implies there was something wrong with medieval civic architecture, but I think it effectively conveys the sense of personal affront I have suffered from this heap of garbage for the last 40 years.

      But of course fans of Madin’s library simply airbrush away its disastrous context and speak about it as though it were simply the famous inverted ziggurat. I have never denied that this was imposing and impressive when seen from the Broad Street side (it’s amusing though, that when the designs were first unveiled ALL the initial press coverage was about the wonderful fountains you would see as you approached from this direction, which of course never materialised).

      However, the impact on Chamberlain Square was disastrous. Paradoxically it managed to be overbearing at the same time that it failed to effectively enclose the square. A lack of proper enclosure is a problem in the wider city centre: there are too many places where you can see right out of it. In Chamberlain Square, thanks to Madin’s Library, you could see too much sky. Another issue was its relentless horizontality (see, in particular, the windows in the notorious link bridge), at odds with the vertical rhythms of
      the surrounding civic buildings.

      Against this last point, when the library first opened you could actually see a visual synergy between its supporting columns and the vertical lines of the Museum & Art Gallery. But this was obscured when the courtyard was covered and subsequently filled with tat. Yes, I know the library’s supporters did not approve of this, but unfortunately the uncovered courtyard had proved to be a windswept disaster.

      Those are some of the reasons why, on balance, I was in favour of the demolition of Madin’s library. Obviously anyone is entitled to disagree with them, but I hope they at least show that I have given the issues some serious consideration.

      Am I “a classic Brummy demolisher”? If so, I’m a classic Brummy demolisher who took part in a demo circa 1973 against the proposed demolition of the post office in Victoria Square – the cause which marked the end of the 1960s demolition derby. Were Andy Foster or Getafix on that demo?

      As to this snooty comment: “As the arts correspondent of the Post I had hoped that he might at least have some appreciation for the city’s best modern buildings…” I don’t recall having a wider conversation with Foster/Getafix about the city’s best modern buildings, but I’m a big fan of the New Street Signal Box, I think Feilden Clegg’s Aston University halls of residence are the most elegant addition to the city centre in the last 30 years (too bad they didn’t get to design the later ones)
      and when it comes to Madin I wish they would leave the Chamber of Commerce building alone.

      It’s a pity that there aren’t more outstanding examples to choose from but for 20 years I banged on in the Birmingham Post, and in various other public forums, about the urgent need for the city to raise its architectural standards. I don’t know if I can be bothered to blame myself if no-one was taking any notice.

      I’m not even going to bother to respond to the charge that (lumping me in with the late Clive Dutton) I have “no real understanding of what makes successful cities work” (I would say I was on a very steep learning curve on this very subject in the 1980s – hence my many campaigning pieces in the Post on the subject of public transport).

      But, finally, this: “It seems those who run the city are on a mission to erase any real character, quality and interest from the city’s built fabric. The tragic thing is that they always seem to think they are doing things differently when they’re all just the heirs of Herbert Manzoni.”

      What? The people who demolished Masshouse Circus and removed miles of pedestrian subways in the city centre are the heirs of Manzoni? That’s a seriously weird point of view.