You are on page 1of 5

MW/CD/KJ/MH 9 July 2008

Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MBE, MP,

Department for Culture, Media and Sport
2-4 Cockspur Street

Dear Margaret Hodge,

Birmingham Central Library – Certificate of Immunity from Listing

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the advice prepared by English
Heritage following the City Council’s application for a Certificate of Immunity
from listing which was submitted on 10 September 2007.

My response concentrates on the architectural and historic significance of the

building, although I would start by asking the question how the situation has
changed in the five years since the former Secretary of State decided the
building should not be listed.

In terms of the physical condition of the building, clearly that has deteriorated
further and the inadequacies of the building for a contemporary library service
in a dynamic multi-cultural community at the heart of a globally relevant city
become evermore apparent.

As the English Heritage advice states, the standards for post war buildings
are high with only the very best identified for listing.

Whilst the library clearly received attention in the media and the technical
press at the time of its completion - and it would have been surprising had it
not done so, given its scale and the fact it was, as the advice states, the
largest non-national library in Europe. However, in spite of the international
awareness of the building it remains the case that the building has never
received a single architectural award since its completion, locally, nationally,
or internationally.

In 2002 the Birmingham Post and Mail building was granted a Certificate of
Immunity by the Secretary of State. As recently as December 2007, number
103 Colmore Row, the former Nat West bank, was rejected for listing.

It is therefore the case that not a single building by John Madin has been
statutorily listed.

With the exception of Andy Foster in the Pevsner Architectural Guide to

Birmingham of 2006, I am not aware of any noted architect, or architectural
historian or commentator having ever spoken in favour of the retention of the
library - let alone its listing - and the City Council is clearly of the opinion that
the building does not meet the rigorous requirement for post war statutory
listing. I would point out in passing that John Madin lives in Hampshire and
not Birmingham as the report states.

The English Heritage advice places the Central Library in the context of the
city’s civic centre and in ‘an area notable for the quality of its architecture.’
However, the opinion of both the City Council and the overwhelming majority
of leading organisations representing the educational, commercial and civic
life of the City, together with residents, is that the intimidating brutalism of the
building may well have represented the ‘apogee of this phase of Birmingham’s
history’, contemporary with the Inner Ring Road, complete with its subways
and underpasses, but it is a period now derided and one which the last twenty
years of Council policy have sought to undo.

The conventional wisdom within the City is that the building significantly
detracts from the civic ensemble, particularly the recently refurbished Grade l
Town Hall and the manner in which the link block, part of the original
ensemble, collides with the Grade ll* listed Council House Extension is one of
the more obvious ways in which the building fails to respect its higher quality

The accretions to the original building have also clearly detracted from the
original monumental statement.

In his authoritative book ‘Building Jerusalem’ published in 2007, Tristram Hunt

describes the erection of the Chamberlain Memorial as the apogee of the civic
gospel and goes on to say, ‘Sadly, the demolition of the sympathetic Victorian
architecture which surrounded the Memorial and its replacement in the1970’s
by John Madin’s horrendous ziggurat concrete library (famously described by
the Prince of Wales as looking like a place where books are incinerated)
rather lessens the impression today. Once a shrine to public service, it is now
sullied by the glaring neon lights of a McDonalds and the tat of second-rate

Again the English Heritage advice refers to the location of the library between
the two major public spaces, Chamberlain Square and Centenary Square.
The library, in fact, forms a bottleneck and a physical and visual block
between the two, which greatly inhibits the development of a well connected
central area.

The evolving City Centre Masterplan places considerable emphasis on the

need for improved linkages between the city core and Eastside and
Centenary Square, Brindleyplace and Westside, whilst north – south links to
the Jewellery Quarter are practically non existent.
Clearly in the planning of the redevelopment of this critical and pivotal area
the City Council would wish to work closely with English Heritage to ensure
the enhancement of a group of distinguished historic civic buildings and their
linkages with other parts of the city centre.

The statement that the continuing success of the library is self evident, which
is made within the Adviser’s Report - whilst true - is very largely in spite of the
building and due to the commitment of the staff who overwhelmingly dislike
and are constantly challenged on delivering an important and substantial
service to the citizens of Birmingham, and the region, from the existing

The difficulty of offering a rapidly changing library service and also housing
several world class collections in appropriate conditions becomes evermore

The City Council has committed itself to the provision of a new Library of
Birmingham since the year 2000. The Council’s Cabinet approved the
business case for the new library in October 2007 to develop the new library
on a site adjacent to and integrated with Birmingham Repertory Theatre, in
Centenary Square. This followed extensive feasibility work, including some
design work that established that the vision and objectives for the Library of
Birmingham can be successfully delivered on the site.

The Council has committed to underwrite the full cost of the new library and
archive. This is a commitment to fund a £193 million project which will provide
a state-of-the-art library and archive 30% larger than the current library and
10% bigger than any other public library in Europe. The new library will be
built, ready and open for business in 2013.

This is because Birmingham City Council recognises the power of knowledge,

information and culture to change lives, sharing the Government’s view that
culture can ‘contribute substantially to the local economy, to improving
peoples’ wellbeing – especially young people – and to the strength and safety
of communities in general’. An understanding of this is at the heart of the
vision for the Library of Birmingham which will be more than a building, it will
be a destination and meeting place for the whole community, breaking down
perceived barriers to cultural engagement and playing a pivotal role in the
cultural life of the City.

It is important to stress that the role of libraries has been transformed since
the early 1970’s when the Central Library was designed, in response to the
technological revolution and changing patterns of use for learning, leisure and
culture. The ‘extend and refurbish ‘option for the existing library was costed in
the 2007 business case at £166 million. This was considered by the Council
to be not good value for public money, compromising the opportunity to
provide the ‘best library in the world,’ - the new project’s mission statement -
and removing all possibility of redeveloping Paradise Circus in a manner
which would truly reflect its magnificent and distinguished setting in the civic
heart of the largest homogenous city in the United Kingdom.

I would now like to address, in order, the reasons for the designation indicated
in the English Heritage report. I would make the following comments:

1. The boldness and monumental scale of the building create in a modern

idiom a monumental civic building worthy of its setting in Birmingham’s
civic centre. The boldness and monumental scale’ could be seen as
brutalism and intimidation, both externally and internally in the
circulation area of the library. It is unsympathetic in its relationship with
the adjoining buildings and it prevents the enhancement of their setting,
particularly that of the Town Hall, a Grade l Listed Building which has
been exceptionally well restored to its former glory (and opened by
Prince Charles earlier this year) at a cost of £35 million in partnership
with English Heritage.

2. The architectural quality of its design. The architectural quality is

certainly not sufficient to warrant listing; the materials, most particularly
the external cladding, were to a reduced specification and the
accretions over many years have reduced some of the qualities the
building might have had. John Madin, admittedly an influence in the
post war development of Birmingham, does not have a national
reputation and none of his buildings have been listed. In the opinion of
many, his best building, the Birmingham Post and Mail, was turned
down for listing in 2002.

3. The importance of the library to Birmingham: it is the largest non-

national library in Europe and as such is a fitting library for England’s
second city. It is precisely because of the importance of the library to
Birmingham, which is in fact the second largest public library in Europe,
that the existing building is no longer fit for purpose and can no longer
cater for the educational needs of a modern library service or the
curatorial requirements of world class collections. This particular
reason for designation appears spurious.

4. It is the apogee of this phase of Birmingham’s history, evidence of

which is fast disappearing. If the library is indeed the ‘apogee of this
phase of Birmingham’s history,’ it reflects a very different society which
cared little for those with any disability for whom the building is barely
accessible. For the general public it is unwelcoming and the circulation
spaces awkward, diminutive and indeed claustrophobic for the twelve
million people a year that pass through its atrium.

5. It is unique. The building may be ‘unique’, but it is unique in its ugliness

and disfunctionality, hardly grounds for statutory listing one would have

I did want to respond to the specific conservation issues raised in the English
Heritage report with regard to the Shakespeare Library and other artefacts.
The significance of the Shakespeare Library is fully recognised and there is a
clear commitment that it will be reconstructed within the new library.

The Royal Warwickshire Regiment Boer War Memorial, somewhat
incongruously located in the lending library, is deserving of a more appropriate
location and again there is a clear commitment to do this. The medallions of
Shakespeare and Garrick will be rehoused in the new building.

I write this letter as Leader of the City Council, but also as one who has long
known the building and experienced its excellent services provided in a poor
and outdated environment. Before the Minister comes to a decision on listing I
would very much like to invite you to visit the library, as you have done

As we created in Symphony Hall a concert hall which is the equal of anything

in the world, we are now committed to a new Library of Birmingham which is
similarly the envy of the world. In doing so, to create educational powerhouse
which releases the energies of the most learned academic and equally those
of the Bangladeshi child from a challenging environment in inner city
Sparkbrook and also one which becomes a heritage and social history
resource accessible across the globe. That cannot happen in the existing
building. We are committed to enhancing and extending the civic area and
improving its accessibility; that cannot happen if the existing building is

In conclusion, the City Council vision and passionate ambition, is to be one of

the twenty most liveable cities in the world (benchmarked against the annual
Mercer index) within the next ten years. To do so is in the national interest, as
well as in the interests of all our citizens in both the city and the wider region. I
believe this ambition will be significantly impaired if the Council are inhibited
by the preservation of the existing library. The two issues are simply

For all these reasons the City Council profoundly disagrees with the
recommendation of English Heritage and trusts that you will recognise the
force of argument against the statutory listing of the Central Library.

I very much look forward to your early response to my letter and confirmation
that you will authorise the Council’s application for immunity from listing as
soon as conveniently possible.

Yours sincerely

Mike Whitby
Leader of Birmingham City Council

cc. Simon Thurley, English Heritage

Diane Macfarlane, DCMS

Related Interests