Outline plans for what could replace the Central Library have finally been released for public consumption. Alun Thorne spoke to the team behind the project about their vision for the site and the challenges ahead.
There are few buildings that polarise opinion quite like Birmingham Central Library.
For many it is a blot on the landscape, an eyesore that harks back to a dark age of architecture that besmirched Birmingham and continues to offend to this day.
For others, it is a classic example of the Brutalist design movement in which Birmingham led the field and as important a monument to the city’s history as the Council House, the back-to-backs or the Jewellery Quarter.
But what is almost certain is that its days are now numbered.
As soon as Birmingham City Council embarked on its new library for Birmingham in Centenary Square and the Government announced that it was not minded to list the John Madin-designed inverted ziggurat, the writing was on the wall.
Underpinning the council’s decision to commission a new library has been a long-standing view that Paradise Circus, the eight-acre site on which the Central Library stands, is an unmitigated disaster of urban design and stands as a cork between the traditional city centre and the successful redevelopment of the western end of the city around the ICC and Brindleyplace.
While the new library for Birmingham was still a twinkle in Mike Whitby’s eye, Argent – the developer behind Brindleyplace – expressed an interest in the site if the council was ever so minded to get rid of the Central Library and for the past five years or so the company has been working alongside the council with preferred developer status as the possibilities for the site have been examined.
The latest stage of the process has been the launch this week of phase two of a public consultation for Paradise Circus with a view to submitting an outline planning application for a scheme that would involve the eventual razing to the ground of the entire site.
That includes the Central Library, The Conservatoire and the Copthorne Hotel and replacing them with up to 1.7 million sq ft of retail, commercial, civic, leisure and hotel space across 12 buildings as well as improving pedestrian access and the public realm with new squares and transforming the highways around Paradise Circus.
The project is being led by Gary Taylor, a former managing director of Argent who recently launched his own development company called Altitude, as well as Argent project director Rob Groves, both of whom are quite clear about the challenges the site offers, both technically and reputationally.
“This is probably one of the most complicated pieces of real estate in the country in terms of the work that was started in the 1960s and 1970s and then the rubbish that was built in the ‘80s and ‘90s.” said Mr Taylor.
“What we have been trying to do is unpick everything with the roads underneath and round the outside – it really is as complicated as it gets.”
There are a number of engineering issues that seriously constrain the site, including the fact that the A38 Queensway tunnel runs directly underneath, the A457 that runs to the west of the site, the Birmingham City Council basement car park that also runs underneath, and an existing combined heat and power system and fire escape tunnels from the A38 – all of which have to be overcome before the scheme above ground can even be considered.
The main changes being proposed will effectively mean Paradise Circus is no longer a traffic island with no left turn at the top of Great Charles Street and also new signals at the top of Broad Street instead of all motorists having to go left.
Mr Groves said: “It is more logical with this proposal. At the moment when you enter Paradise Circus there is no perception you are entering a roundabout as it is more like you are entering a one-way system.
"It’s illogical because you are effectively turning away from the way you want to go.”
But while the engineering challenges have been a huge part of the work that has already gone into preparing an outline planning application – Argent has already spent in the region of £2 million in fees alone – the proof of the pudding for the scheme is the bit that will be seen by the man in the street, the bit that needs to assuage the doubters who believe that the Central Library should stay, fit for purpose or not.
And Mr Taylor is clear that while there is an established vision, this is a true consultation that has already got the grey matter working overtime.