Birmingham’s new Library: the last “people’s palace”?

September 3, 2013 at 5:05 pm (Art and design, Brum, culture, Cuts, Jim D, labour party, literature, modernism, reformism, socialism)

A “last hurrah for local pride“?

The new Library of Birmingham: rubbish outside (above); magical inside (below)

To the opening ceremony of the new Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square today: an occasion made all the more powerful by the superb choice of anti-fascist Malala Yousefai to do the deed. In an inspirational speech, emphasising the emancipatory power of books and learning, Malala brought forth laughter by calling us (and herself) “broomies” – oh well, she hasn’t yet had time to pick up the accent. For the record, she called Brum her “second home” after “my beloved Pakistan.”

The new building itself is superb in every respect, except its outer appearance, which is a gigantic, square and over-decorated cake. The interlocking ornate circles on the outside are, supposedly, intended to represent Birmingham’s history of metalwork and jewellery manufacture. Unfortunately they weren’t manufactured in Brum or the Black Country, but in Switzerland.

Frankly, I think the “old” (ie: previous) library, designed by the now almost-forgotten modernist John Madin and completed in 1974, is a much more handsome building, and I’d been hoping it would be retained and given a new role. Sadly, I overheard Birmingham Council’s Deputy Leader Ian Ward today, telling someone that it’s going to be demolished.

But enough carping: once you’re inside, this is, indeed, a “people’s palace,” as architect Francine Houben of designers Mecanno, describes it. It includes everything you’d expect of a modern library (ie “an open information hub for the City”), plus a “library within a library” for children, massive archives accessible to the public, elevated gardens with stunning views of the city, and -right at the top- the reconstructed 1882 Shakespeare Memorial Room with Europe’s most extensive collection of Shakespearian manuscripts and Shakespeare-related literature.

This is, truly, a “people’s palace” and credit is due to Council / Labour Group leader Albert Bore (someone I’ve had clashes with in the past) and the Labour leadership of Birmingham City Council, who drove the project forward against Tory opposition at local and national level.

But this is likely to be the last such civic project in the UK for the foreseeable future. With the present cuts and the emasculation of local government finance by the Coalition, the idea of another £189m public project like this would now be unthinkable.

So why the hell was Tory / Coalition Minister for Culture Ed Vaisey invited to attend and speak at the opening ceremony?


  1. Sue R said,

    The external decoration may reflect Birmingham’s history of jewellery making and metalwork, but it’s also an Islamic design. On seeing it my first impression was tht the Council wanted to attract in the many inhabitnts of Islamic background in the surrounding environs. (I’ll get my tin-foil hat…).

  2. Mike Killingworth said,

    Isn’t HS2 a public project?

    And, Sue, if the City Council really wanted to reach out to its Muslims, it would have a “women only” day at least once a – oh, you tell me…

    • jimmy glesga said,

      A women only day without headscarfs. A pathetic horrible looking building. Reminded me of the damp concrete flats built for the Gorbals working class. Glasgow refurbished and extended the old St Andrews Halls into the best library in the world. Birmingham must have such a building!

      • Robin Carmody said,

        If you think that’s a pathetic horrible looking building, what do you think of the previous brutalist one?

        (Yes, yes, I know: Do Not Feed The Troll.)

  3. Robin Carmody said,

    Something that always interests me: if Tories hate brutalist architecture as much as they always say they do, why are they always so firmly against any plans which will help our cities (except London, and maybe not even there when Ken Livingstone was in charge) move away from it?

    The answer must be that they hate those cities so much – regarding them as not really English, or even British – that they think they *deserve* everything they hate. The cuts are the revenge of those who felt they were being “driven out of their own country” during Blairism, only now they’ve co-opted many of the things (the internet, pop music) they used to see as strictly for the other side.

  4. Sue R said,

    Mike, perhaps the Council is planing a womens’ day on a regular basis.

  5. Jim Denham said,

    • Robin Carmody said,

      Jim, you misunderstand me – I wasn’t talking about the previous Birmingham Central Library in particular, I was talking about the general hypocrisy and double standards of Tory attitudes to development in areas which are not their core areas of support, and was using their language much more than I would use normally. I was getting under the skin of people I despise to find out how their minds work (and specifically, in this case, suggesting that they are still – underneath it all – as anti-urban as they were back in 2001 or so), not directly expressing my own views.

      I am in fact a defender and admirer of quite a lot of oft-criticised 1960s and 1970s architecture (I have written elsewhere that it would be as wrong, if not *more* wrong, to blame Le Corbusier for John Poulson as it would be to blame the entire pop-culture/youth explosion of the 1960s for neoliberalism), and I certainly don’t use “brutalist” as a sneering, universal term of abuse – when I use the term, it is often far from the pejorative it would inevitably be in Tory hands. I know the territory quite well and I can tell the good from the bad in a way a lot of people can’t – to cite an example known to me personally since childhood, I’m exceedingly sceptical of the merits of the currently-proposed redevelopment plan for the Queen Elizabeth Hall/Hayward Gallery.

      Hope that clears it all up, Jim!

      • Jim Denham said,

        “Hope that clears it all up, Jim!”

        Indeed it does, Robin. And thanks for taking the trouble to reply in such detail.

  6. finbar said,

    Who are these unionists talking about their care.Look what we have built.No industrial strife built this building,and those that think should have can get a book as long as they are a member.Though they have to understand that the books come at a cost,our charge for our prefered reading has a charge.Our late fees also have a charge.But our members do understand.Our members if we ask them about socialist care,we don!t think it would be appropriate.

  7. finbar said,

    Is there a social concept about our library..

  8. finbar said,


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