Opponents of Birmingham Central Library seem to be vanishing, notes Alan Clawley.
With the resignation of Sir Albert Bore as Leader of the City Council Labour Group, fans of John Madin’s Central Library can quietly celebrate the demise of an influential quintet of two councillors, two officers and one property developer that had long plotted and championed its destruction.
Bore’s co-conspirators Mike, now Lord Whitby, the late outspoken Clive Dutton, former head of planning and regeneration, former head librarian Brian Gambles, and Argent’s Gary Taylor have left the scene. Only one other councillor, Bore’s deputy Ian Ward, has publicly championed the Library’s destruction and might be capable of filling one vacancy. But even his position is far from secure.
Mike Whitby was strongly censured by the Birmingham Post in July 2008 for a personal attack on the Library’s architect John Madin. The editor wrote “…a touch of desperation appears to be entering the Council strategy. In a 4,500-word letter to the minister, which his friends might describe as passionate but others would regard as bombastic and vaguely threatening, council leader Mike Whitby makes the case for demolition of the Central Library. Was it, for instance, really necessary to make a case about the quality of the architect’s other buildings and to add, somewhat gratuitously, that Mr Madin now lives in Hampshire rather than Birmingham – as if that is in any way relevant to the factors Mrs Hodge must take into consideration when deciding whether to list the Central Library.”
In 2007 Clive Dutton famously advised Cabinet (The Stirrer 11th December) that the Central Library was of “no architectural merit”. He was of course bluffing because he knew it had been recommended for listed status once and would almost certainly be considered for listing again. Why else would he have advised the Council to apply to the Minister for Culture for a Certificate of Immunity from Listing?
Brian Gambles and I were interviewed by Lucinda Lambton in Birmingham in October 2008 for her Radio Four programme entitled Listed. I quote:
Gambles: We’re looking forward to building a new Library of Birmingham about two hundred yards from here which will be funded through the city council (£193 million) and we’re going to be building the best public library in the world. It’s going to open in 2013, and there will be a few tears but not too many tears shed over the demise of our present central library.
Lambton: There’ll be buckets pouring out of my eyes I can tell you because of the extraordinary way it yells of the age in such a superior way. I mean it’s marvellous to come in here and march through these great buildings, first of all Victoria Square and then Chamberlain Square with these beautiful great neo-Classical very fancy Victorian buildings, 1940s detailing, and then wham bam in your eye this sensational seventies Brutalist monster of a block which becomes beautiful by virtue of its being of its age and there won’t be any more ever.
Gambles: I think there’s another way of looking at it. The incongruity of the way that the Brutalist structure of the present Central Library sits with the Victorian and post-Victorian structures around us. I think it sits very oddly with those.
Gambles retired from the Council in April 2015.
One of Sir Albert’s innovations, to allow members of the public to address the full council, gave me to chance in 2012 to ask him whether in deciding to demolish the Library he had considered the growing appreciation of twentieth century architecture. His reply (I quote) – “I can only provide personal comments as regarding the appreciation of twentieth-century architecture and would limit myself to saying that I am not a fan of what is sometimes called twentieth-century Brutalism, an architectural style which has blighted many cities including our own here in Birmingham,”– showed that he had not given the opinions of others a moment’s thought.
So, while the last of the Library’s big adversaries is fading away its supporters are growing in strength. A new action group called Brutiful has been formed and is finding widespread enthusiasm for the style not only from the usual suspects such as the Twentieth Century Society, the Manchester Modernists, and the World Monuments Fund (who have just put the Moseley Road Baths on their list of endangered species) but also from unexpected quarters such as the National Trust.
On 10th January 2016, when the Certificate giving the Library immunity from listing expires, none of the once-powerful quintet will be around to oppose a new listing application as they did before. In the meantime, we watch and wait for the long-promised wrecking ball or its modern equivalent.