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birmingham central library

Architect and urban designer Joe Holyoak takes issue with a recent public consultation about the future of Birmingham’s Paradise Forum – organised by developers Argent. He reckons the drawings make an unfair case for the demolition of the Central Library.

The recent exhibition organised by Argent plc in Paradise Forum, about their proposed redevelopment of Paradise Circus, was rather tendentious when it came to dealing with the existing Central Library.

The City Council’s intention is that it should be demolished when it is replaced by the new library currently under construction in Centenary Square.

Many of us believe that, even if it is not to continue in use as a library, architectural and sustainability arguments are strongly in favour of its retention and reuse, and its incorporation into a new development, much as Oozells Street School (which became the Ikon Gallery) was successfully incorporated into Argent’s own Brindleyplace.

Yet the word demolition did not appear in the exhibition. It was merely implied that the removal of the library is necessary in order to “completely transform the area, with new streets and squares and create a first class setting for the remarkable collection of historic listed buildings that sit adjacent to Paradise Circus”.

It is not true that this is necessary, and indeed, the library, a building of considerable quality, and one of the city’s best buildings from its period, now deserves to count as an historic building itself.

Much was made in the exhibition and the accompanying questionnaire about the supposed “barriers to movement” that the library represents; a charge also made earlier by Mike Whitby and others.

Evidence to support this charge was provided in the exhibition by a misleadingly-drawn figure-ground plan.

A figure-ground plan is a simple block plan showing the pattern of buildings and spaces; buildings are shown in black, and public spaces in white. For the purpose of showing how people can move through the city, this plan should be drawn at ground level.

If the library were to be drawn in this way, it would appear mostly as white space – a hollow building. But the plan in the exhibition falsely showed the library as a solid black mass, suggesting that one has to walk around it – not the reality that we know.

There are obstacles to movement, particularly towards Summer Row to the north. But these are not provided by the library, but by the poorly-designed later additions that were made to John Madin’s uncompleted plan following the financial crisis of the 1970s.

If these were to be swept away, the pedestrian space of the library could successfully be integrated with a new pattern of spaces around it.

A drawing by Glenn Howells Architects in the exhibition showed the view along a new pedestrian street from Centenary Square towards the Council House clock tower. This new street would be approximately on the line of the old Congreve Street, and would require the demolition of the library.

The long axial view towards a tower is a regular and familiar urban design device. But it is not the only way of viewing a tower, and by itself certainly does not justify the library’s demolition.

A view withheld and then obtained only from close-up can also be very effective and dramatic. Good examples of this are the tower of Westminster Cathedral, and, more famously, the campanile of St Mark in Venice.

Argent PLC and Glenn Howells Architects are invited to respond. Contact


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