What paradise will be like

Alan Clawley has seen Paradise and would prefer it stayed lost.

Even the most avid fans of Brindleyplace who can’t wait for the day that every modern, pre-post-modern and Brutalist building on Paradise Circus is reduced to rubble will be disappointed when they see what Argent plans to replace them with over the next 15 years. That is, if they can fully grasp what is being proposed just by looking at the outline diagrams and block model displayed in the Water Hall this week.

On the other hand, those of us who have long fought a rearguard action for the retention of the Central Library building in the scheme would have had a much harder task criticising the proposals if they had looked exciting, bold, imaginative and architecturally innovative.

The icing sugar model on show is intentionally non-committal. We are not meant to see what materials will be used, or what will be on the ground floor of the blocks. There is no indication of how the whole scheme will be built in phases over a 15-year period. But it does show that Argent has the green light from the planners to build to the same height as the new library – twice the height of the listed Baskerville House – even though that makes the historic buildings in the Colmore Row Conservation Area look small in comparison. One of the team on duty during my visit told me that English Heritage – that body that recommended the listing of the building that Argent plan to demolish – had been consulted. I wonder what they said.

Like it or not, ‘appearance’ matters to the public. When the Minister for Culture announced on The Ed Doolan show last year that she would not list the Central Library, Doolan happily endorsed the views of a caller who said, ‘I will be really pleased to see the back of the Library. I’d now like to see an award-winning complex similar to BrindleyPlace – lovely, brick-built buildings which would complement the Town Hall and the Council House.”

The model reminds me of how film-makers depict heaven (or Paradise?) – all white and no conflict where we are all supposed to want to end up. But if this is a deliberate joke it is at our expense. At most we can only reserve our judgement until more details are revealed. Even the Council’s new library (now being built) is shown on the model as a pure white block without its distinctive overlapping rings. None of the buildings are labelled to show what they will be used for, and the replacement Concert Hall will be just a part of one of the generic commercial blocks.

But we are wise enough now to know that developers talk big but can’t always deliver. The model includes the Arena Central V-Tower when we all know that it has been postponed indefinitely. We can all dream but the developers and City Council have had many years to polish up their plans for Paradise Circus. Instead we are presented with a model that tells us little more than what we saw at Argent’s last public consultation two years ago.

In contrast, when the designs for the new library went before the Planning Committee we were shown many computer-generated images which, as it has turned out, gave a very accurate picture of what the building would look like. Walk-though videos were and are available on line to show what it would be like inside. Admittedly, Mecanoo did receive a fee of £10 million for their trouble. Councillor Whitby was prominent in promoting the scheme in the media and for borrowing the required £193 million to make sure that his dream got built to a strict timetable.

A view of Birmingham

The Rep, Birmingham’s new library and Baskerville House

Argent’s proposals for Paradise Circus on the other hand, are vague and presented using old-fashioned cheap methods. Other than the Birmingham Post I have not seen any other publicity considering it is a £500 million scheme that is far more significant than the new library. Councillor Whitby and his staff have stayed out of sight. There is no guaranteed public funding. It is as if the Council is saying to the developer, ‘Look, we have moved the Library for you, now its up to you’, but for me, handing over all the responsibility for a major redevelopment to a developer is a privatisation too far.

Birmingham Central Library - John Madin

Birmingham Central Library

Argent propose to submit an Outline Planning application in the summer. In the meantime Friends of the Library will do its utmost to influence the outcome by re-iterating what has changed in favour of retaining the Library since the Council announced its demolition 10 years ago, and publishing some alternative proposals – all on a shoestring. Donations welcome.