Saturday, 24 August 2013

Birmingham - save the old Central Library Building!

All this time, and I've never yet written a blog post about Birmingham, the place we left to come here to Hastings.
     Neither Philosopher or I are born Brummies.  We both moved there, separately, married to other people, in 1979, him from York and me from rural Gloucestershire.  But after 33 years, both of us called it home.
     Like Hastings, Birmingham always gets a bad press.  Lazy journalists write about both places without ever visiting them. My favourite example of this was about Hastings. I forget where this particular article came from, but it mentioned the desirable properties that could be snapped up for fourpence an area called 'Cliff Rly' on the West Hill. Clearly read straight off the A to Z, this refers to the Cliff Railway - the funicular!
     In Birmingham, we lived in Moseley, a leafy Victorian suburb in the south of the city - from the start, I was always struck by how green the place was - big mature gardens with tall trees, and quiet tree-lined streets. The tree-cover, and of course, the buildings, meant that we never saw the horizon, or that much of a sky-scape. Very different from down here....
     Anyway, this time we went up to take Eve back to her Mum, and as so often, stayed with our old friends Sue and Alex.
     Unlike all previous visits, which have been a hectic round of catching up with old friends, illnesses and holidays meant that we found ourselves with more time on our hands. Time to look at our old city through the eyes of a visitor - a tourist.  Hence this blog post.
     We'll start off in Moseley. Often referred to as Birmingham's answer to Hampstead, it is a bohemian mix of affluent professionals, academics, students in shared houses, and a good cross section of the ethnically and culturally mixed population that characterises the city.  I met my friend Jackie in Maison Mayci, one of the many cafes, pubs and coffee places. Nice, but frequently full of 'yummy mummies' and their unregulated, noisy, offspring. This time, it was hot enough to sit outside, and all the mummies were presumably in Provence anyway.
Moseley village

     Next day, a bus journey to the city centre, about four miles from Moseley.
     Like all big cities, in Birmingham you travel through different layers to reach the middle. At the very outer edge, much further out than Moseley, you first get the concrete council estates built in the 60s and 70s to rehouse people from inner-city slums. Castle Vale, where I worked, was one of these areas, but in the north of the city.  Then you pass through 'semi-land' - well-kept suburbs built in the 30's. Then the Victorian suburbs, either big houses in the higher, healthier areas, like Moseley, or streets of small terraces, generally in various stages of 'gentrification'. Then, the more economically deprived inner suburbs - from Moseley, you pass through Balsall Heath and Highgate, housing a shifting and diverse population in a mixture of new estates and more run-down terraces. The main streets are busy and vibrant, lined with balti-houses, saree shops, shops with strange vegetables and bright-coloured plastic piled up outside, cash/telephone outlets and second-hand car lots.
St Martin's spire from the Bull-Ring
     Next, outside the central core, the old manufacturing district, all derelict factories and vacant lots. This time, the empty sites were bright with buddlea behind their graffitied hoardings. Anyone who wants to see the truth of Britain's so-called economic 'recovery' has only to travel down Bradford Street. Some of the empty Victorian factories have been converted into social housing, but apart from that - desolation.
Selfridges escalators



















     Then the futuristic shape of the Selfridges store looms into view as the bus passes the Bull Ring Market - a tenacious survivor from 'old' Birmingham.
     You get dropped into a seething throng outside the new Bull Ring centre. It is so busy - a far cry from more gentle Hastings. Mind you, on this particular sunny summer day the city was looking at its best - the new buildings all shiny, busy pavement cafes in the tree-lined Victorian part of the city.
     Brum desperately wants to be a a thriving 'Euro-city' - Britain's second city, bigger than Manchester. It has a long record of re-inventing itself. In the days of Joseph Chamberlain, crowded slums and ancient buildings were cleared to make way for magnificent expressions of Victorian civic pride. In the 1960s, tragically, some of these buildings were knocked down - quite a few remain though, including the Council House, the Museum and Art Gallery and the Town Hall. In the 1980s another building surge developed the canal system as leisure and living quarters, and produced stuff like the International Convention Centre. In the 2000s, the decaying 60s roads and buildings are being replaced.  Since we moved to Hastings, the truly squalid 60s New Street station has gone - the new station is a huge improvement, and the new Library of Birmingham will open any day.
     It's an interesting business, the library.  The new building looks very striking, but they now intend to
New Library of Birmingham
demolish the previous building, the Brutalist ziggurat by local architect John Madin, who died in 2012.  No way should they knock it down. The rough-cast concrete may look dingy and stained now, and the style may be unfashionable, but I am convinced that in another generation Birmingham will be regretting its loss in the same way as it regrets the loss of its high-Victorian buildings. I can't better this article about it from the Independent.
Old condemned Library - further messed-up by stalls from tacky food fair

     Very little seems to have been done to save the building or even get it listed. It seems to have few friends. As I see it, it could easily be restored to take its true place as one of the most striking buildings in the city.
     Back in 2011 we went to Lanzarote, and stayed in the Gran Melia Salinas hotel, a 'heritage' 1970s building by famous Spanish architects Fernando Higureas and Cesar Manrique. Slightly later than the Birmingham Library, it is a bit more organic, but has many similarities, not least the central atrium. Here are two contrasting pictures. I am not saying that the old Birmingham library could become a tropical garden, but much could be done.
    Battleaxe says - save the Birmingham Central Library!

Library


Gran Melia Salinas, Lanzarote
.