The Hole of Birmingham

Alan Clawley detects a hole where others see an amphitheatre in Birmingham.

When is a hole in the ground an amphitheatre? When Birmingham City Council says it is – and happens to be in front of its new library in Centenary Square.

A computer-generated image published by the Council of the circular hole depicts a scattering of passers-by leaning over a balustrade peering down into it. Below a man is playing a grand piano and a gaggle of library-users hang around wondering what is going on. The sky is blue and there is no sign of any downpour that would threaten to ruin the expensive Steinway instrument.

Hole of BirminghamEven by the Council’s own standards this is surely a spin too far. The truth is that the hole is nothing more than a means of getting some daylight into the basement. Even then, daylight is unlikely to reach as far as the Children’s Library which will be at the other end of the site next to Cambridge Street. And the architect Francine Houben was forced to give the building a basement and even to extend it into the Square because the site was always too small and without it the library would have been even higher than it is now.

But the hole is open to the elements and vulnerable from mischievous passers-by in the public Square. If the performers were put under a protective canopy they would not then be visible to the overhead ‘audience’ in Centenary Square. So, just as the draughty Central Library atrium was glazed over to keep out the weather it is probable that one day a glass dome will have to be put over the hole. Its days as a second-rate amphitheatre will then be numbered because the sound of music or an actor reading a Shakespearian sonnet will be confined to the basement.

It’s not as if we don’t know how amphitheatres work because we have a fine example of one in Chamberlain Place in front of the existing Central Library. It is by far the best outdoor Artsfest venue in the city. The performers and their instruments can be sheltered under a temporary awning and everyone in the audience gets a good view from the rising steps.

Chamberlain-Square-BirminghamCentenary Square was Birmingham’s biggest public square and the prime venue for major events before the hoardings for the new library site were put up. Even when the library is opened and the hoardings come down the capacity of the Square will be greatly diminished by the hole especially if it does get a dome.

Councillor Whitby has chosen his architect well. She is more than his match for willingness to weave a fanciful story to cover up a dubious project.