Paradise Forum and Central Library: Trash or treasure?

26 10 2007

Paradise ForumIn council rooms, community halls, office boardrooms, a debate is heating up. Should Birmingham’s Central Library and it’s associated Paradise Circus be demolished or preserved for future generations? It’s a tricky question to answer when all arguments are taken into account.

The Central Library was designed by John Madin, an architect that was leaving a mark on postwar Birmingham, in the 1960s. It was completed in 1973, two years later than planned. The books and documents were transported via a makeshift bridge from the old library to the new one. When this was completed, the old library was demolished to make way for the Inner Ring Road and for the Adrian Boult Hall. Even in the design stages, people were unhappy with the design. Madin’s original idea was to have it built in Portland stone but obviously financial factors ruled this out. He had to settle for abrasive blasted reinforced concrete with precast exposed limestone aggregate storey-height panels

The striking design of the building was quite clearly brutal and it met significant opposition upon completion, most famously Prince Charles who described it as “looking more like a place for burning books, than keeping them“. This view was shared by many at the time who saw it as criminal act upon the streetscape at Chamberlain Square and in the midst of the Art Gallery, Council House and Town Hall. But it was much larger than the old library, which was now so small that historic books were being stored in libraries all over the city. The new library had seating for 1,000 people and 32 miles of shelving for over 1 million volumes. Several aspects of the building that made it through the design stages were also ruled out, including a water garden. The open area which was laid out to contain this aqua feature was completed but the pipes were never installed and through the help of poor weather, it deteriorated into a lifeless space, avoided by the public unless they really had to walk through it. The actual library is the building closest to the Council House extension that follows the curve of Chamberlain Square. Paradise Forum was the upturned ziggurat structure that was the most dominant, and probably the most reviled, part of the complex. It lacked elegance.

In the 1980s, change came for the Paradise Forum structure. A glass pitched roof was fitted to the top of it and a new entrance was constructed on the Chamberlain Square elevation. Centenary Way, a bridge crossing the Inner Ring Road was constructed, and either side of it, glass buildings were constructed. One houses the Copthorne Hotel. When viewed from the ICC or the Hall of Memory, this view is symmetrical but the curtain walled glass looks out of place and awkward against the concrete panelled Paradise Forum. Shops units were fitted into Paradise Forum and with other minor additions of a clock and vegetation, it was slightly improved in appearance. But despite this, Birmingham had developed the concrete jungle image and the name ‘Paradise’ was horribly ironic.

In 1999, the council aired their plans for a new Central Library. Alarm bells started ringing across the city. The first location mentioned was that in Eastside on a small patch of land that was being used as industrial offices and units. Richard Rogers was commissioned to design the library and an adjacent residential complex. The design showed a building with a leaf shaped footprint, glass roof and an airy atmosphere. If it were built, it would the 10th largest library in the world. It was met with much admiration, as are many of Rogers’ works. But in a surprise move, the council shelved the plans over cost and Rogers pulled out. It was embarrassing for the council as they had thrown away a chance for a truly world-class structure. Feasibility studies were carried out at locations all over the city centre. Baskerville House was looked at but it decided that it would not be able to hold the weight of all the books. In confidence, the council announced they were looking at splitting the library in two. A reference library would be built at Centenary Square, between the Rep and Baskerville House and a structure containing all the historic documents would be built at Millennium Point in the Eastside. This met yet more opposition, to the dismay of the council. So finally, the council threw this out the window, prolonging the embarrassing saga. The council stuck with their choice of the Centenary Square site and earlier this month, it was announced that they were to combine the library with the Rep theatre to create a cultural and educational centre. However, only days after, the issue of money was brought into it. A few weeks later, it was announced that originally planned international design competition was thrown out the window.

But whilst all this was going on, people were starting to wonder what would happen to the current library. It is not owned by the council. The site is owned by Argent, developers of Brindleyplace. In 2006, they began work on improving the interior of Paradise Forum. The Twentieth Century Society began campaigning for the building to be listed. However, it was obvious that council had other ideas and were favouring getting it demolished. The general public opinion was also that it should be demolished. Nevertheless, the society kept on campaigning, and met very little success. On the other side of the world, plans were also being unveiled for the demolition of Boston City Hall, a similarly designed building. It became clear that these two buildings were probably the only buildings of their kind in the world and both of them are under threat from demolition. This has strengthened the case for the protection of our library.

Now this is how I see things. The library has a strong case for both preservation and demolition and I can’t actually make my mind up. Obviously, this building is a symbol of a type of architecture that is close to extinction. If Boston City Hall is demolished, Central Library is the last of such buildings left in the world. This is an accolade, so do we want to get rid of it from the world? We live in a society where we want to preserve out past. But we seem to only want to preserve what the public see as beautiful when the actual criteria for listing building states that it should be listed on its architectural importance. Now, to me, that means that this should have Grade I listing. But obviously, there will be opposition and surely the council wouldn’t want one of the buildings that they want demolishing being put under the strictest of preservation orders. Plus, this building is a symbol of the vast regeneration Birmingham witnessed following World War II. As the postwar buildings are being blown up and demolished, this building will become one of a kind for the city. Birmingham can celebrate the vast array of architectural styles that it has. More so than many other British cities and this is just a piece in the jigsaw for Birmingham.

But, is it right to preserve a building that also symbolises the reputation that Birmingham acquired as a concrete jungle? Is it right to preserve a building that has no chance of making it onto a postcard? The building is a bottleneck. When passing from Chamberlain Square to Centenary Square, you are squeezed into Paradise Forum and it gets crowded. Over the past few years, the Inner Ring Road has been downgraded and removed, with the exception of Suffolk Street Queensway. What has prevented this? Paradise Circus! So demolition of Paradise Forum and the associated buildings would present an opportunity to not just create a better flow of pedestrians, but to remove the final piece of the Inner Ring Road and reconfigure it.

The plan for the site at the moment is to demolish it all and build a huge office complex. This will most probably consist of at least two towers. Now, I’m all for that as long as it respects the Council House and Town Hall, but when I take into account the importance of the Central Library building, it makes me wonder if there is really a way of keeping that, demolishing the buildings around it and somehow incorporating an office complex with the Paradise Forum. However, that’s an ideal situation where money is no object, and in modern Britain, money is everything. What ever is going to be done here, there will always be opposition and there will always be questions to be asked.

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30 responses

26 10 2007
Jon Bounds

>keeping that, demolishing the buildings around it and somehow incorporating an office complex with the Paradise Forum.

It’s not just money, but accountancy that seems to be the problem, capital verses revenue budgets and all that. If they truly can find the £190odd million for the ‘new’ library (which seems hopeful to say the least) then with the will a better solution than demolition must be available.

16 11 2007
Eskimosik

Hi

What do you think about this? When it happens?

16 11 2007
Eskimosik

Hail

What do you think about this? When it happens?

18 11 2007
Eskimosik

Hi all!

What do you think about this? When it happens?

18 11 2007
Tom

Personally, I am all for progress and if demolition of the library is necessary for the improvement of library services in the city, then I am all for it. I don’t believe in sidelining heritage to allow progress to happen but the effects the demolition of this library will have would be immensely positive. Not only will it free up a congested bottleneck at one of the most prominent locations in the city centre, it will also rid the city of a symbol of a period in it’s history that most would really want to forget about. The land released will also have incredible potential. Whatever is to be built here must be successful in combining all styles and creating an easy pedestrian movement. Something that achieves this would be in line for a RIBA Stirling Prize, in my opinion. It would take a very skilled architect to do this.

27 11 2007
Sara

I know the list/demolish decision should be based on the architectural value of the building, but at the same time I think sod it, the library is damn ugly, pull it down.

It’s buildings like this which give Birmingham it’s (partially deserved) reputation as a concrete jungle.

I hadn’t heard about the Eastside proposal. That would have been brilliant for the new “education quarter”

22 02 2008
Tim

i can see the pro’s and con’s of retaining or demolishing the library, however i fear for its chances of surviving redevelopment of the site. The developer will want to maximise its return on investment and this will only be acheived by clearing the whole site and putting up the towers, as is the current plan.

the city is now favouring a new library on the site of the surface level car park next to the rep theatre, how can you squeeze a world class library onto such a constrained site….build it and in 10 years there will be calls to move it again.

24 04 2008
Richard

Hi, I just encountered your blog while surfing around – very interesting reading! Congrats!

As to the libarry, I walk through Paradise Forum almost every day and find the inside as much of an eyesore as the outside.

Whether or not the building has historical merit, it has some structural problems that were talked about as part of the background for moving the library, it takes up a huge footprint with little benefit to anyone, and as Princ Charles would probably put it, it’s an out-of-place carbuncle on the view from Chamberlain and Victoria squares.

If it could be transplanted to the area between Baskerville House and the Rep (as has been suggested for the location of the replacement library) it could actually work, but where it is, it’s impractical and usless from every perspective.

12 10 2008
Dean Beedell

Please let them knock it down, we need to undo these brutalist additions to all our cities. They were bad buildings at the time, it was just that being ‘modern’ was synonymous with being ‘good’. We are still falling into this trap and so much money is being wasted on concrete boxes to this day.

4 11 2008
Thierry

I have never been to Birmingham and just arrived here with Google image.

After seing a few videos about the subject, it seems to me that the origin of the problem is more urban than the library in itself, and also the fact that the public space directly surrounding the building has never been completed as it should have been, with the water features.

As an architect it seems to me this building has a great sculptural impact and is original.

If this building was demolished it would probably be regretted as a new bulky development without any character replaces it.

14 11 2008
dp

Move it, brick by brick, to a museum of brutalist buildings? The museum itself could be sited in an unloved area formely occupied by industrial or residential eyesores. It would provide a companion/contrast to the restored 19th Century village at the Black Country Living Museum.

But it’s not built in brick, so how would it be taken apart for moving? Maybe that’s part of what determines its future. If it cannot be moved, it has to be demolished, regardless of its architectural significance.

21 12 2008
sam8perry

i had an idea for the library, to keep it, but improve it, as it is a striking piece of architecture that could be massively improved while still preserved.

So, you knock down the attached surrounding building, to explose the library more as an individual structure; so that you could walk all around it more. You get rid of the shops inside and extend the library down to the ground floor to making that area a large entrance hall, as well as maintaining the interesting feature of having to walk through it to access broad street. You cut a central column out of the structure, that streches right up to the roof, and have a glass roof. Then each floor looks down to the foyer through glass walls, and is enhanced with extra light. From the outside also you’d be able to see straight into the library through the big glass walls, (instead of maccy d’s). Then prehaps most importantly, imagine if you rendered the outside in white, or just off white with a smooth finish. It could look spectacular! You also get rid of the crap paving in front, and use some large light grey, more elegant slabs or something.

What du rekon as a propasal?
Sam

4 02 2010
David

It would be such a shame to lose this building. Birmingham lost so many Victorian buildings during the modernisation which at the time were not appreciated and are now sorely missed. It would be a travesty to add this to the list of buildings which are architecturally brilliant and inspiring but demolished for a quick fix. I’m sure this building could be incorporated into any redevelopment which I agree the area needs. I hope the planners see the value of the building and don’t replace it with a mundane and uninspiring development which could be interchangable with innumerable other forgettable ‘modernisations’ in various other cites. I’m sure this building will become more and more iconic and loved with each passing decade and will be seen as a real piece of heritage for the city.

14 03 2010
Hoppy Spadge

I totally agree with David, and also like Sam8perry’s idea. The Central Library building is amazing and we will definitely regret demolishing it if the Council get what they want. I believe the money they plan to spend on the new library could be used to make improvements to the current building, which would allow the public to see the building for what it truly is: a remarkable, iconic structure in the Brutalist style, that Brummies, and indeed the rest of Britain, can be proud of.

The motto of the City – Forward – is often taken so literally it is ridiculous. It would be far more of-the-moment to actually consider reusing the Central Library building, in sustainability terms, than build a series of incredibly boring office blocks that nobody will have an affinity with. We’ve got an amazing piece of architectural heritage already sitting there – it needs to be celebrated, not bulldozed.

Can anyone honestly say that they feel a connection with the Brindleyplace development buildings? Because that is the style of architecture we’ll end up with if Argent follow their plans. The current civic use of the space will be turned over to yet more chain-restaurants and cafes – this will surely lead to the “blandification” of the heart of the city. Let’s keep the Central Library, rather than look like the biggest idiots of all – why chase the trendy future only to lose our existing heritage that the Council so eagerly seek to create from scratch themselves? We have an iconic world-class piece of library architecture already right in front of us – we must wake up and save it before it’s too late.

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I think modernisation is key for Birmingham to move away from being a concrete jungle. A Birmingham architect can resurrect this and I for one really like the design and suitability of the new library. City libraries are still a useful commodity for many people in Birmingham and should be preserved.

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