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Birmingham Central Library

Local papers have been publishing drawings of what Paradise Circus would look like if Birmingham's Central Library was demolished - but Alan Clawley insists the current building is an asset to the city. Here he explains why.

Even those people who do not like the Central Library’s appearance must agree that it is a building of great architectural character and strength. It is genuinely unique to Birmingham. If it is demolished nothing like it will be built again. As architectural historian and Chairman of Friends of the Library Andy Foster said on television, we would be ‘a load of fools to get rid of it’.

It speaks eloquently of its time. English Heritage say it should be listed and although the minister for culture Margaret Hodge thinks otherwise we are in the process of challenging her decision not to list it. Lucinda Lambton exclaimed as she stood on its steps interviewing Alan Clawley for her Radio Four documentary, ‘it’s a sucking great inverted ziggurat of a concrete building that sets my soul soaring upwards and outwards past this great stepped profile. It’s terrific; it’s a very, very strong building indeed.’ Will the same ever be said about the vapid proposals that we see illustrated in the Birmingham Post when even the authors avoid the words ‘iconic’, ‘stunning’, or even ‘memorable’ in describing them.

Photo by Alan Clawley, 2009

The sketches showing what Paradise Circus would look like if the Central Library were not there are based on the myth that it presents some sort of blockage. Those who want to remove the library claim that it gets in the way of people who want to walk from New Street to Brindleyplace. They talk in abstract terms of ‘improving connectivity’.

They say that the Library stops the Tower from being viewed from Centenary Square and the new library being glimpsed from the steps of the Art Gallery. None of these claims bears close scrutiny. Before the council sealed up the open concourse under the reference library and leased it to a private developer it was a public thoroughfare with an unobstructed view of the clock tower.


This drawing by James Priddey adorned the front cover of the British Telecom phone directory in 1975, shortly after the library was opened to much acclaim. The recession of 1974 and cuts in Council spending were the death knell for the humanising pools, fountains and soft landscape that architect John Madin had planned for the public areas. Even when public spending increased those features were never restored or finished off as they were intended. Instead public money was lavished on other prestige projects, such as Centenary Square and Victoria Square where extra cash could be found to pay the cost but which today are beginning to suffer the same fate as the Library due to tight maintenance budgets.

Artists impression of the intended landscape around the Library [John Madin]

In 1989 the council spent its own money on an ill-considered scheme to put a glass roof over the atrium and a glazed screen round the perimeter of the concourse. The council then allowed it to be filled with shops and fast food restaurants by its leaseholder Argent plc, the same company that is planning to redevelop the whole of Paradise Circus. This clutter needs to be removed entirely and the splendid concourse restored as a public space that could be used for sculpture, performances or exhibitions.


  • …not starve the city of office blocks

The policy of redeveloping Paradise Circus, which called for the removal of the Central Library in order to build ‘grade A’ offices, was adopted by the Council in 2000 and it remains their policy today. It was not something recently dreamt up by Argent plc. The market for offices has not been adversely affected by the existence of the Central Library. Other office schemes are already in the pipeline and waiting to be built. The council can therefore decide, even at this stage, that the Paradise Circus scheme need not go ahead in the light of the present economic downturn and the resultant pressure on public finances.

  • …save money that can be spent in the community

We see growing evidence every day that local projects like swimming pools, community libraries, and park buildings are being starved of council cash in order to pay for the new library. By scrapping it now the cost in compensation, understood to be £30million, will save £590 million in the long term.

  • …avoid having an empty Paradise Circus for many years to come

Waheed Nazir, Director of Regeneration has told us (email 5 February 2010), ‘Paradise Circus is unlikely to be on site before 2013/2014 and even then I suspect take 10 years or more to complete’. Clearly he believes that Argent plc is in no great hurry, but does anybody want to live with a hole in the ground until 2024?

Alan Clawley is Secretary of Friends of the Central Library



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