Countdown to 'The Library of Birmingham' - setting the scene

April 2nd should see the launch of the new designs for the new Library of Birmingham, the ambitious fusion of the Birmingham REP and Birmingham Central Library in a £193 million project centreing on knowledge, learning and culture.

It is a project that has been dogged by political fighting and the challenge by The Prince of Wales who described the existing central library as looking "like a place where books are incinerated" together with the lure of cash that the freeing of the current library's location could create with potentially £1 billion redevelopment of the Paradise Circus area.

It is for this reason I've not blogged the ongoing saga of the library until now as it could have filled it's own blog and i'm reserving judgement on these new proposals as too many people have their expectations rested upon it and i'd like to make up my own mind. ran a useful review of The strange case of the overdue library in 2008 which provides a useful chronology on how we've got to where we are now.

The third Library

The current Birmingham Central Library was built in 1974 and is the third incarnation, built to last for 100 years with 31 miles of stacks and 1.5 million visitors. The first, built in 1865 lasted until 1879 when a fire destroyed it before it reopened in 1882 with an opening address by Rt.Hon. John Bright, MP. This was replaced by the current library in 1974. The council had approval in principle to replace the second library in 1938 but the Second World War intervened in delaying this ambition. By 1960 the Birmingham Mail had reported the library held 750,000 books despite being designed for 30,000, Central Library - from old to new.

The second library, reproduced from

It was finally decided to build a new library; the reason given in the John Madin Design Team Report, June 1973 was: 'The Old Central Library has to be demolished to make way for the new road construction'. The foundation stone of the new library was laid on 5th June 1970. By 1973 the main building was ready. Materials were moved across the bridge linking the old and new libraries, one section at a time.
The third library, the current, has suffered however since it was built, with the building crumbling, with water seeping into the metal mesh in the library's concrete structure and a fire in the early 1990s destroyed the children's library and damaged the lower floors.

By the turn of the Millennium, Council Leader Sir Albert Bore, the labour leader, decided that the extension of the current building to architect John Madin's 1970s designs would be too difficult and costly and that a new library would be a good anchor and focal point to the Eastside regeneration scheme.

A competition was launched in 2001 with an ambitious 'frame of reference' budget of £150 - 200 million. The Richard Rogers Partnership won the scheme in May 2002 but the flexible budget was a thorn in the project.


Richard Rogers Partnership Design, reproduced from,4,23,553&showImages=detail&imageID=1559&showParent=true

Designs for the library are undeniably impressive, but what might be questioned is the planners' decision to break the existing thread of the city by putting all its newly laid cultural eggs in one basket - Eastside - while turning the old library site into a kind of mini-Manhattan.
The budget became the undoing of the Rodgers design despite impressive media attention and a large consultation, 4000 children had their views regarded, and revisions to the scheme were considered to lower the cost. These challenges were excacerbated with the 2004 change in council structure with Labour losing control of the council after 20 years to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. The meeting between Rogers and the new coalition didn't go well, "The meeting was awful,” says one attendee. “It was very clear the scheme was not what they wanted.",

New Characters

The problem for the new council leader, Mike Whitby, was that freezing the plans for ostensibly sensible financial reasons soon looked to the local media like dithering. Rogers’ plans had effectively been shelved, and instead Whitby started promoting a split-site solution, which would see a lending library built on a car park next to the Repertory Theatre in Centenary Square, close to the current location, and a city archives and reference section at Eastside.

Consultant Invigour confirmed that the split-site idea would be cheaper than Rogers’ plans, at £147.4m compared with £179.5m.
Following the moves away from Rogers' scheme and 2006's simple indicative concepts for the site adjacent to Baskerville House the Rogers scheme was dead and it now fell on unpopularity by the public and council officials to abandon a split site option. Footfall and public popularity for the library in the heart of the civic quarter meant a single site was now the preferred option but another consultant report suggesting a building of 13 floors, four underground and nine above made this option unpalatable.

Another plan was hatched. If half of the neighbouring Repertory Theatre was knocked down, the library would need just 11 floors, seven above ground. The theatre’s facilities need updating anyway, say the plan’s proponents, and this scheme will have less impact on the skyline. The theatre and library will merge, sharing several services, such as a cafe. The plans were unveiled last October, just over a year after Capita Symonds was appointed, and the intention is to complete the project by summer 2013.
So that's where we emerge, to the current plans for the site adjacent to Baskerville but sharing with the REP an ambition for a centre focussed on knowledge, learning and culture.

However it was never going to be a simple conclusion to the twists and turns getting to this stage. Criticism of the scheme come from those who accuse it of being too small, cut from 38,000m2 to 31,000m2 together with the looming funding gap of £39m, to be underwritten by the council, which was to be funded by land sales (optimistic in the boom years and now in a recession looking quite a difficult task).

Of course there remains the existing Central Library. Supporters have asked for the building to be listed, having already missed out on listing once, but the council is determined to proceed with the new library, listing or not.

There is one final issue that has simmered for years, but is only now being aired: the existing library itself. One of the key reasons to leave the site is to help with the £1bn regeneration of Paradise Circus, a proposal that has been in development for more than seven years. John Madin, the 83-year-old architect of the library, is convinced that the commercial gain from this plan is the reason his flawed masterpiece faces a wrecking ball. “It is a great sadness that the sole purpose is to sell off Paradise Circus – the central library is obstructing that sale,” he argues.


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