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.





The West Midlands Fire Service HQ

23 10 2007

Fire HQ towerWhilst still providing an elaborate and dramatic frontage over Lancaster Circus, this building is slowly being hidden from view by modern development. The area is fast becoming one of the most prominent sites in Birmingham with it’s proximity to Aston University and the Children’s Hospital. On the other side of the flyover is a 0.8 acre site currently for sale advertised as being good for a mixed-use highrise development. Aston University are also planning to empty their wallets by demolishing three red brick student flat towers – Dalton, Lawrence and Stafford towers. They will be replacing these with three, shorter, yet more-imposing towers with more flats. There has been talk of a tower at the Lancaster Circus office for Birmingham City Council too. But stuck in the middle of this, is the West Midlands Fire HQ.

The building is incredibly large. Look at it from the front and you can tell it’s big. The entrance tower, which looks bigger than it actually is, is perfectly situated on the corner of the site to make itself known from the city centre. The lightly coloured stone facades mark a contrast to the deep red terracotta brick buildings that make up the Steelhouse Lane conservation area. The colour of the construction material makes it blindingly obvious, to those who know, when this was built. OK, so there’s a foundation stone with a nicely engraved plaque at the base of the tower, but from just reading the stone on the facade alone, you can tell that this is a building design during the 1920s and 1930s. How can I tell? Well, take a look at the Hall of Memory: Portland stone, classical architecture. Another example? OK, Baskerville House: Portland stone, classical architecture. One more example? Birmingham Municipal Bank on Broad Street: Portland stone, classical architecture. All those were built during the 1920s or 30s.

Fire HQ sideLike those building, the fire HQ is quite clearly of classical architecture with the influence of Victorian tastes. The tower is topped with a decorative sheltered platform. Close inspection reveals detailed balustrades, excessive use of string coursing and, of course, decorative columns. It is shame then that the only compliment this tower receives is a set of antennas on the roof. At the base of the tower is a perfect arch, topped with a stone tablet with the letters PBB. Although it also looks like HBB, BBB, HBR. Make of it what you will, either way, I don’t have a clue what it stands for, so I’d be very grateful if someone could enlighten me there. It is after peering through the green iron gates that you realise that the building is ‘hollow’, containing a courtyard within it’s centre. At present, it is being used as a car park but in earlier days, it was actually used for training and preparation. This is seen by the fire tower, which too looks like it has been designed to perfect detail. However, the architecture of the facades lining the courtyard are not so grand and inspiring as those on the outside. Fronting Lancaster Circus is the main exit for the fire engines, although the engines have since been removed and the building is used just for offices now. With all shutter doors raised, a colonnade effect is produced. Above this are the setback offices.

When walking around the other sides of the building, the character of the building changes as you drift from a structure that is covered in Portland stone to a structure that is consists mainly of brick. It makes you wonder if there were initial designs which show the station completely covered in Portland stone, but the cost of such a feat would have prohibited such extensive use. To the rear, the building takes on quite a normal image. The stone is used less, only for window frames and sting coursing. If your lucky, you might even get a small section of the facade covered in stone too. But the brick is overwhelming and is marked with rows of traditional sash windows. Look above the top floor and you notice rows of chimneys set on top of a tiled pitched roof. There is a lot about this building that is traditional and it makes you grateful that this did not succumb to fate of not just the bombers, but of the 1960s planners. And yet even more recently, the ‘refurbishers’. Yes, this crazy crew seem to like the idea of removing traditional sash windows and replacing them with cheap, ghastly-looking uPVC windows. Imagine this building lined with uPVC!

Fire towerAnd yet even at this point, I still have not given you that history lesson that I can hear you all craving for. Well, to be honest, I know very little about the history of the building. I don’t know the architect, I estimate it was finished in 1936, though I can’t be sure, I really don’t know much at all. And I refer back to the foundation stone. The stone which was laid on 6th March, 1934 by Alderman J.B. Burman J.P.. J.B. Burman was chairman of the Fire Brigade sub-committee as well as the Watch committee. It is at this point that the writing becomes difficult to read, not least because of years of erosion, wear and pollution accumulation, but also because of the plain inconvenience of the engravers skill.

And I refer back to first point – the area is changing. Soon, the fire HQ is to become a victim of this. It is not listed. I don’t think it is even locally listed – when it really should be. But what could sound the death knell is the fact that West Midlands Fire Service is currently constructing a large, modern office facility on the former Co-op dairy site. Designed by Birmingham-based Kinetic AIU, the building will become the new headquarters for the fire service when it opens in 2009. Complete with modern offices, it will also house a ‘safety village’ for training. What will become of the fire station? Well, luckily, all current initial plans have included the retention of the building. Kinetic AIU have released initial ideas showing a 40 storey skyscraper slapbang in the middle of the courtyard. Thinking about it, you cannot believe it as being possible but remember that this building is huge. Take a look on Google Earth and you will see it could quite easily fit a skyscraper in there. Kinetic are not the only group to show off their plans. Broadway Malayan, with offices on Edmund Street, have shown a model of a highrise office tower with a sloping roof. This also goes in the courtyard. Whilst there is no news on any potential developers, we are hearing murmurings of interest from Aston University. Is the university set to delve a little more deeper into their pockets?

But what has actually struck me is that, after years of quarrelling between the architects and the conservationists who want to protect buildings, it seems that the two may have developed a partnership. 10 years ago, we would expect to see this building being demolished if a skyscraper were to be proposed on site. Of course, even with the current plans, the NIMBYs will be out in force arguing that there is an obsession to build high and that the skyscraper will not respect the architecture of the structure. But I think they’re wrong here. The purpose of the design of the fire station was to be grand and to appear big, so why can’t we building something in the middle of it that shows off the attitude of the architect to the design? Just do one thing though, keep this building and keep it as a reminder of what the area looked like before the construction boom changed the image of the area.

Oh, and I’m back! 🙂





Baskerville House: Testament to one man’s great ambitions

12 05 2007

Baskerville HouseBaskerville House is overlooked by many because it holds no real wow factor to the general public. However, it’s history is long and winding and if the public knew the intentions for the area, including this building, then I can guarantee that 99% will be fascinated.

The area of land Baskerville House is perched was originally a little higher than it is now and was known as Easy Hill. Back in the1700s, Broad Street was nothing more than a country track and there area was nowhere near as built up as it is now. On this hill was a house owned by John Baskerville, one of the most important men in printing. It was described as an ugly edifice and when the Priestly Riots took held of Birmingham, the house was the scene of looting and mayhem.

When Baskerville passed away, he was buried near his home on Easy Hill. However, several decades later, the tomb had to be moved for the construction of a canal that still runs behind the building today. It is said that when workers were preparing to move a section of the tomb, it cracked open revealing the corpse of Baskerville. This is possible, but it most likely situation was that they opened it up. Nevertheless, they found the body to be in almost immaculate condition considering the time he had been buried. So fascinated were scientists and the public, that the body was even put on display for several weeks, attracting large crowds.

The church began to object to the exhibition of the body and it was decided to remove the body from public view. It was stored in a warehouse and then secretly buried in a crypt in Christ Church next to the Council House with several other bodies. It was again moved to Warstone Lane Cemetery where it remains today.

As Birmingham developed in the 1800s into an industrial town, Easy Hill quickly became an industrial centre due to the vast array of canals that passed near the area. Broad Street developed into an established street with various other streets branching off it. Baskerville’s house was demolished and a factory built on top. Here it remained until the turning of the 20th century when industry began to decline.

The area became the focus of the a book by William Haywood, an architect, called “The Development of Birmingham” which was published in 1918. Plans presented in the book were New Street station development plans and plans for a People’s Hall. His most ambitious plans were for this site in particular which included the complete demolition and clearance of the area to make way for the construction of large municipal buildings.

The plans looked at filling in or realigning the canal to the rear and constructing 6 buildings around a square courtyard (two per side with one side completely free). Baskerville House was one of the buildings that formed this conglomerate. It was to be joined at the rear via a link bridge to another building of similar design. The original plans for the centre of the courtyard were a large column with a statue on top surrounding by a giant park or car park. This was modified in the 1930s and a giant monolithical highrise building of 30 storeys was proposed. This was not taken to well and it was soon dropped, reverting back to the column. To the south, a large park or square was proposed with a meeting venue at one end and a memorial at the other to the soldiers of World War I. This memorial came to be the Hall of Memory and the overall park became Centenary Square.

Baskerville House was completed in 1938 and the entire development was expected to take another 10-20 years to complete as building it in one giant phase would be a massive undertaking and possibly too expensive. The rear of Baskerville House was constructed of brick with the intention of being temporary so that it could be demolished when the next building will be constructed.

World War II delayed the project severely and it was agreed that construction should recommence after the war. However, when the war ended, municipal buildings had fallen out of favour and the plans were dropped. The park was still built, as was the memorial however nothing else came to fruition. Over the next 30 years, the area developed with the construction of a multistorey car park, student flats, four highrise tower blocks, Civic gardens, The Rep theatre and more recently, the International Convention Centre with Symphony Hall. If the plans are to be resuscitated, then all the buildings outlined would need to be demolished – obviously meaning that it will never happen.

Baskerville House therefore remains as the only standing structure in a visionary jigsaw puzzle thought up by an architect who should have had more international respect. The actual architect of Baskerville House was T. Cecil Howitt of Nottingham.

Over the years the building has had hard times. It has fallen into decay many times, it has been emptied and it has rarely had a good clean. More recently, it was surveyed in an investigation to see if it would make a suitable venue for the new Central Library when it moves from the current site. Despite it’s sturdy looking structure (enhanced by the stone facing), it was discovered that it would not be able to withstand the weight of all the books.

It was sold by the council to developers in the 2000s who promptly drew up plans to extensively refurbish the building into Grade A offices. This meant the complete demolition of the interior (including floors) leaving just a shell, and then the complete reconstruction with the addition of a modern roof feature. The plans were approved and work began quickly. The exciting development was completed in 2006 when the sheets came down revealing a newly cleaned, modern looking structure, reworked back to its former glory.

The building is quite beautiful and it will still be overlooked by many as it does not contain any public attraction. It is imposing though and makes an impact. The mixture of architecture on Broad Street add to the need to keep the building and the Grade II listed status further enforces this. The modern addition works well as it is not so imposing that it completely detracts from the classical image of the building with it’s stone façade, large entrance columns, entrance arch and string coursing.

It is a great testament to two men, John Baskerville and William Haywood, of which we should all be proud.