Heir to Manzoni

Alan Clawley on the legacy of Clive Dutton.

Clive Dutton, who died on 7th June aged 62, was no friend of the Central Library and, in pursuing its destruction, he shunned the convention that council officers should be impartial advisors to their political masters. He once advised Cabinet that the Library had no architectural merit, implying that the council need not worry about it being listed and could therefore knock it down with impunity.

Dutton brought the values and methods of the private property developers’ world to the public sector. He worked for Gallaghers before moving into the public sector in the Black Country. The result in Birmingham, so far at least, is the Library of Birmingham, opened in 2013, and the re-styled New Street Station which is still unfinished.

Birmingham New Street station - Artists impression

Birmingham New Street station – Artists impression

Both building projects are over-assertive, were shockingly expensive, and offered only marginal improvements on existing facilities in return. Dutton never showed much concern for the users of libraries or rail stations, which suggests that he was neither a habitual library user nor a regular rail commuter. His job for the council was not to maintain or improve services but to promote the conventional wisdom that property development, regardless of its ultimate purpose, would regenerate the local and regional economy and therefore benefit everyone.

He was not alone in thinking that and was no doubt inspired by the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry which was said to have turned around the fortunes of a dying Spanish seaport. Sir Albert Bore was a disciple of the same religion and offered no resistance to Dutton’s proselytising even when Labour was in opposition.

Library of Birmingham Photo: The Birmingham Press

Library of Birmingham Photo: The Birmingham Press

Time will tell whether Dutton’s projects have achieved the objectives that he set out. Bore is already claiming that Birmingham’s economy is booming but is unlikely to ascribe that success, publicly at least, to Dutton and Whitby, his employer, even if he thinks that they deserved some of the credit.

But the rapid fall from grace of the Library of Birmingham since its glamorous opening in 2013 endorses the view that Dutton, its chief cheerleader, was not interested in how the library service itself would be paid for at a time of impending cutbacks. And underneath the flashy cladding now adorning the 1960s New Street Station are the same old railway lines, platforms and trains.

Daylight flooding into what was the Palasades and the construction of a new John Lewis store will enhance the shopping experience of rail travellers and bring some prosperity to the city centre but at the expense of the Bull Ring, the Pavilions, the Mailbox and other parts of the city centre.

The fashion for expensive new iconic regeneration projects may have already peaked and the post-modern flashiness that Dutton clearly admired is no longer novel and exciting like it was a few years ago. At Five Ways, existing buildings are being adapted to new uses and re-clad to look like 1930s Modernist classics.

But if you don’t have millions to spend – like the city council in 2015 – buildings should be the last thing on your mind. What goes on inside them is the first thing to worry about.


2 thoughts on “Heir to Manzoni

  1. Excellent article, a shame we can’t find it in the mainstream media (local or national). I had thought St Pancras station was the most hideous building in the uk (had to wait for a bus opposite it once!), till the Shard and Selfridges managed to outdo it. But now they all have a strong rival in the tinfoil train station. I’m just waiting for the first time I see the sun’s image reflecting from its creatively original facade.

  2. I’ve already used the canopy/sun axis to light my pipe, so it’s not without its uses.

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