Alan Clawley wonders if Birmingham city council will realise they have an undervalued gem on their hands.
It’s nice to discover that you own something that is highly valued by experts in the field – unless, it seems, you are the former Leader of Birmingham City Council Sir Albert Bore and the object in question is a 1970s ‘Brutalist’ Central Library designed by John Madin.
The experts in this case are no less than the World Monuments Fund and English Heritage (now Historic England), the government’s own advisor whose recommendation for listing has been made twice and rejected on both occasions. Now city councillors shrug their shoulders as Argent’s demolition squad prepares to knock it down.
One only has to watch the expressions of surprise and joy on the faces of people who bring their possessions to the Antiques Road Show to see the normal human reaction to a positive valuation. None of them would ignore expert opinion and throw the hated objects in the skip. And how much more prestige would be added to the things if the valuer were to issue an official certificate that declared them to be a vital part of our national heritage and thus worthy of preservation.
There are of course differences between buildings and transportable objects. A building sits on a piece of land the market value of which is determined by its location and the granting of planning permission by the local community. When the developmental costs are too high, as was the case with the Central Library, the taxpayer foots the bill for demolition to help out.
The building may thus have no market value but listing could be in the developer’s interest if the cost of refurbishing and adapting it for a new use is less than building a replacement on the same footprint. The fact that this was so in the case of the Central Library was inexplicably ignored by the Council who decided to go ahead with the more expensive option.
Refurbishment is more sustainable and more likely to create employment than demolition and new-build. Some developers, but not Argent, prefer not to demolish. Urban Splash for example specialises in refurbishment and adaptation and was responsible for restoring the famous Rotunda designed by James Roberts and listed Grade 2 in 2000.
Their architect, Glenn Howells, who converted it into an award-winning apartment block, had the imagination, enthusiasm and skill to turn it into something more valuable than an empty office building. The resulting architectural character would have been hard to beat with a new building. There are many more examples of successful refurbishment even on buildings that have not been listed.
I don’t really know what differentiates ‘demolishers’ from ‘refurbishers’. It’s hard to find a rational explanation for the urge to destroy what is known to be highly valued by others. Fanatics of all kinds share an obsession to sweep away the cultural icons of their rivals or predecessors. The western democracies made much of the symbolism of the toppling of the statue of the Iraqi dictator Sadam Hussain whilst the recent destruction by ISIS of the ancient ruins of Palmyra has enraged conservationists.
Party politicians like to differentiate themselves by destroying the work of their predecessors, even that created by members of their own party. Thus, in getting rid of a library opened by Harold ‘white heat of technology’ Wilson, Sir Albert, no doubt encouraged by his mentor Tony Blair, wanted to obliterate an all-too-visible manifestation of Old Labour.
The Conservative Council Leader Mike Whitby, during his turn in power, duly scrapped Sir Albert’s plan for a new library in Eastside and replaced it with his own version designed by a Dutch architect on a site that Sir Albert had once rejected as too small.
In their shared ambition to demolish the Central Library both leaders were following a Birmingham tradition established by Herbert Manzoni who once declared that any building over 15 years old was not worth keeping. They believed they were on the side of progress and took it for granted that their followers shared their values. Their egos were largely unrestrained by opposition. Birmingham’s civic motto of Forward lent them courage to sweep away the past, but there is a word for their utter lack of cultural awareness – Philistinism.
The new Leader of the Council, John Clancy, has never openly supported the demolition of the Library. Will he have the courage to be different?