Inspired by a Jonathan Meades talk in Birmingham Town Hall about architecture I started to think about two of the city’s buildings that he mentioned, because I worked in them for a while last year, namely Birmingham Central Library (aka concrete ziggurat, or brutalist) and the Library of Birmingham (aka the wedding cake, or post-modern, or high tech, or LoB).
One of the themes of his talk was how buildings, or rather building styles, go in and out of fashion. What can be derided at the time is often appreciated many years later. Which is why Victorian gothic buildings were seemingly trashed in the post-Second World War period by a swathe of maniacal town planners intend on social engineering on a massive scale. The old stuff was to be replaced with ’brutalist’ buildings. As an archivist I also worked in Liverpool Record Office and saw the amazing photo and plan collection of Liverpool’s City Engineers & Surveyors department which included models and plans for the futuristic city where everything was zoned into business and leisure, aerial roadways went everywhere and pavements would not be needed as we would all be flying about using jetpacks. Thank goodness a lot of these plans never got implemented otherwise things would have been even worse. Exactly the same thing can be seen in the archives of the development and town planning of Birmingham and other parts of the West Midlands and the Black Country.
I also saw how things could go the other way when working in Liverpool as I lived in Port Sunlight, the village built by Lord Leverhulme for the workers at the Lever Brothers factory, This was a village that had an arts and crafts feel and every housing block was different. It was twee and a vision of a ‘fake’ past but I did enjoy living there. I also saw Jonathan Meades filming just outside my house when in 2000 he was making one of his many films about locations and architecture (‘Victoria Died In 1901 And Is Still Alive Today’, broadcast in 2001). The scene he was filming involved walking along a line of morris dancers while talking to camera. I was on stand by to open the door and allow the film crew to use my electricity if their current power source because unavailable. Ah showbiz.
During Meades' town hall talk I started to think about the differences between the two library buildings and also the psychology of working in them. The ziggurat was a concrete block with a ‘courtyard’. There were no windows and the only view was into the courtyard, otherwise known as a grotty shopping centre interior. The wedding cake was glass and steel with views over the city, especially from the seventh floor roof garden so it was very outward looking, rather than the inward looking mindset of the previous building.
Would this change the attitude of staff and users? It’s too early to say. Morale in the old building could be low, partly because of the compromises made when the Central Library was built (such as planned cladding to soften the exterior of the building not being used and internal changes that played havoc with the heating and air-conditioning - the two temperature choices were usually boiling hot or freezing cold). But the gloom wasn’t solely down to the drab surroundings or a lack of maintenance. It was also due to the preparations for the move to LoB, job cuts and surviving a full scale staff re-organisation. Standing on the LoB roof garden did give you hope that things would improve in the new building but it’s going to take a few years for the new building to bed in. Staff moved into what was still a building site and had to get used to new equipment, new working practices and the public who had been deprived of a central library for several months pouring in and running everyone ragged. And you can add to that the settling down of temperature and humidity controls for the archives and the re-shelving of records after the move.
Will we be looking back in 40 years and reminiscing about the old central library building? There are some who want to see it saved instead of being demolished as part of the Paradise Circus redevelopment. But what is it being saved for? How could it be used? Would those wanting to save it be willing to work in it? As Meades reminded us during his talk - change is the only constant and the feeling of each successive generation that we will get it right this time is one reason why things always change. It is also the reason why we look back with rose-tinted spectacles. To paraphrase, ugliness is in the eye of the beholder and having experienced working there I won’t miss the ziggurat and am one of those people who would cheerfully press the plunger to detonate explosives to get rid of it, or aim a rocket at it from LoB's roof garden.
Or will we in the future be wanting something new to replace LoB as we look at its poorly maintained leaking roof, dodging the steel rings that fall off at regular intervals or tripping over buckets catching water dripping from the ceilings. It would be interesting if the building that inevitably replaces LoB in the future looks like the Kansas City Public Library car park where giant books appear to be standing on a shelf (see http://www.idesignarch.com/kansas-city-public-library-missouri/). Of course in the future we may have libraries without walls (to paraphrase the title of Meade’s recent collection ‘Museum Without Walls’) but we would miss the act of going into a library and exploring on foot as well as in the mind.
Another thought that crossed my mind during and after Meades’ talk was - do architects ever live or work in the buildings they design? Might help if they did, or are building problems always due to compromises that have to be made, and the gap between the imagination and the actual budget available.