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.





Sutton Coldfield Town Hall: A relic of municipality in a royal borough

9 05 2007

Sutton town hall facadeSutton Coldfield is probably one of the most unique of Birmingham’s suburbs in that it seems so much like a separate entity to Birmingham. Well, up until 1974, it was. Sutton Town Hall is a beautiful structure standing as a reminder to all lifelong residents of Sutton Coldfield that they once governed themselves.

Sutton Coldfield is known still, despite being incorporated into the City of Birmingham, as the Royal Borough of Sutton Coldfield. It’s history is certainly connected to the monarchy through land purchases. Wooded areas in Sutton have fluctuated between Chase and Forest with the name Forest being given to those owned by the Royal Family. This is largely forgotten now and most of the wooded areas have either been destroyed through the ever expanding area or protected in the vast expanses of the time capsule that is Sutton Park, the largest urban nature reserve in Europe.

Sutton Clock towerSutton Coldfield really grew in the 19th Century. The advent of the railways played such a major role in the prosperity of the town (though Bishop Vesey’s activities as Bishop of Exeter were also a key factor in the prosperity of the town) permitting industries to establish in the area. Sutton Coldfield followed the example of Birmingham in industry, undertaking various manufacturing processes – however, it was not rewarded with that of Birmingham which expanded absorbing various other boroughs and towns within it’s vicinity.

Sutton Hall facadeThe town was obviously proud to be part of the railway culture. It constructed a major railway station with ornate decorations. To make sure all visitors felt welcomed in the town, a grand hotel was constructed on a small right of land rising above the train station. The Royal Hotel, again reflecting the royal history of the town, opened in 1865 and immediately finances became a major problem. This is understandable when you look at the architecture. The railway station in Sutton was small compared to many others and the hotel was huge – obviously expecting a huge flow of visitors. They splashed out on the architectural features and internal decor, ignoring the fact that this was a make or break situation. As times passed, it became clear it was going to break and in 1895, it closed. For a short time the building was occupied by the Sutton Coldfield Sanatorium but in December 1901 was sold for £9,000 to the Sutton Corporation to serve as Council Offices.

The Sutton Corporation took the opportunity to refurbish the building and extend it. The fire headquarters opened first and a few months later in 1906, the main offices opened to a major ceremony consisting of performances for various local artists. It was undoubtedly a major highlight in the Sutton Corporation’s history.

1974 spelled an end of an era for Sutton Coldfield as it was moved into the newly created West Midlands Metropolitan County and became a part of the City of Birmingham. Many residents opposed this in the worry that they would lose their identity. This they may have lost and Sutton did lose a lot of light as a result of Birmingham’s focus of investment on the city centre and not on the suburbs – Sutton is still feeling the effects and is only just starting to pick up in the last few years.

The Sutton Corporation disappeared and the hall lost all use as offices. A section was used for neighbourhood offices, and still does today, but there was still a huge portion of the building requiring maintenance and general TLC. Well, it was reverted back to an old usage that it had been once before; a theatre. Between World War I and World War II, it was used as a theatre for the decommissioned soldiers and proved successful until its later years.

The town hall now serves as a theatre, social function venue, wedding venue and as neighbourhood offices for the Sutton Coldfield parliamentary constituency and for the four wards which it is associated with. Productions hosted by the town hall include those by the two local selective grammar schools; Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School and Sutton Coldfield Girls’ Grammar School.

Architecturally, this building does appear a bit of a mess from the front. It is clear to distinguish the 1906 from the original hotel. But upon close analysis, a certain beauty can be taken from the building. The windows are large and mismatched creating an interesting pattern on the façade. The clock tower is beautiful and to think that it was once used as a fire tower for the fire headquarters sounds like a crime! The building does not appear as a council building at all, but it does appear to be of a municipal nature.

Features which may interest the least-interested of visitors include the retention of the Sutton Coldfield Coat of Arms above the entrance. The arms have been absorbed into the Birmingham Coat of Arms but they were not removed from the building. They are engraved into stone and are losing the defined edges after years of wear.

The building should remain to make a positive impact on the landscape and now stands as one of three points on the skyline of Sutton Coldfield – Holy Trinity Church, Sutton Town Hall and Sutton Coldfield television mast. I recommend you take a visit to this building, especially if a production is to be unveiled there. The interior décor is intricate to say the least – yet another indication of Sutton’s royal heritage?





Birmingham town hall

5 05 2007

Birmingham Town Hall detailBirmingham Town Hall is one of Birmingham’s first real buildings. It is listed and is now an icon of Birmingham’s destroyed Victorian heritage.

Despite it’s name, it is in fact not a council meeting facility. In fact, it’s a concert venue. Well, it was and will be one again soon. The town hall has been around since the mid-1830s and was the work of none-other than the inventor of the Hansom Cab. It’s design is based upon that of a Greek temple and the sheer presence of the edifice impresses all. In the late 1900s, the building was closed following lack of maintenance and for a while it remained empty and unused. A multi-million pound restoration project commenced and through painstaking work, it was revitalised and given a new lease of life. Life it needed and Birmingham needed.

It now stands dominating the southwest of Victoria Square and the south of Chamberlain Square giving an iconic neighbour to the majestic council house. Hardcore sand blasting done in the most careful of conditions has revealed the very fabric of the building – Anglesey marble – in it’s greatest light. Before it was dirty. During it was covered in a large advertisement hoarding. After it was a spotless structure. It was even subject to the Complaints Choir as a result of the advertisements detracting from the architectural magnificence of the building.

Set to be opened formally in a two week long party in September, it is now symbolic of a history that Birmingham was all too ready to throw away in the 1960s. In many instances, it did.

And now for future generations, we can see the splendour of the building in a way that has not been achieved since 1836 following the work of another great architect who created England’s most iconic and administratively-prominent buildings – The Houses of Parliament.

It Brummies cannot be proud of this building, then they should be ashamed. If Brummies can’t even name the building, then they should not be classed as Brummies. That is a fact!