OPINION: Brutalising Brummie Brutalism

Interior of Birmingham Central Library - cira 1973
Interior of Birmingham Central Library circa 1973

By Althea Patterson – first published on 07.01.14 / http://foxhunter7.wordpress.com


“The terraces on floors four and seven are closed due to adverse weather, thank you.”

I laughed wryly as the broad, thick Birmingham accent boomed over the public address system. I’m sat with coffee, notebook and pen in the fairly pricey cafe in the Library of Birmingham, a stone’s throw from the now redundant Birmingham Central Library.  Whereas the former is a feat of glass, steel and light airy modern free time, the latter is a very much maligned paean of brutalist architecture, bad enough to be remembered for Prince Charles memorable quote of it being “a place where books are incinerated not kept”.

Ask any Brummie and it is a landmark that certainly divides opinion, upon hearing it was due to be demolished in 2014, I spoke for many of my peers when I said “About bloody time!”  Then, I changed my mind.

I came across a group wanting to save it and felt an awful twinge of nostalgia. Call me a sentimentalist fool, but hear me out.  Firstly, I know the chances of the building being saved are fairly slim; the owners, The Argent Group would have had the copper and lead piping inside priced up before the ink on the contracts had dried.

Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Towers in North Kensington
Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Towers, London (UK)

Why is it so bad to hold onto parts that make us unique and stand out as outstanding? Birmingham Central Library is an iconic signpost for my city; when so many towns are becoming replicas of one another – a high street with Apple, Starbucks, Subway and a large shopping centre  –the prospect of it disappearing only to be replaced by a bland glass fronted structure is disheartening.

As a student in the mid 1990’s Central Library came to be a home from home. I spent many an hour sat in its belly reading, writing, learning, drawing and listening to Jamiroquai on tinny Walkman ear buds. It was a wonderful place for a bibliophile; you could smell the sweet crispy aroma of books as old as the written word and all the knowledge contained. Steal energy from the other tired students sat opposite you and smile at the homeless people who made reading a copy of The Guardian into an all day activity.

Everyone was welcome, there were no pretentious acts, it didn’t try and be anything other than a library. Computers were almost sneered at by the staff who religiously nursed their filing cards.

It was, in my opinion, a womb of learning.

Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith's Park Hill flats in Sheffield
Ivor Smith’s Park Hill Flats, Sheffield (UK)

Brutalist architecture has been saved all around the UK, most notably Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith’s Park Hill flats in Sheffield (right) and Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Towers in North Kensington (above) have been handed Grade II listed status by English Heritage, meaning they are of special architectural or historic interest and will remain standing.

The same privilege not given to John Madin’s inverted ziggurat that ate, slept and contained knowledge for 40 years in Birmingham. Ho Hum…

On the square which it resides sits three other buildings: Birmingham Town Hall, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and Birmingham City Council House – all upwards of 150 years old. All still respected, and beautifully maintained. Maybe Brutalism isn’t as pretty as classical grandeur but it’s no less important to the heritage and history of our city.

Recycle and reuse for the next generation. Please Keep it.

Yours sincerely, A proud Brummie 🙂

To know more about the campaign to support Birmingham Central Library, or ‘Keep the Ziggurat’, visit the following links:





N.B. Not to be confused with the ‘Friends of Birmingham Public Library’ in Alabama (US)


Althea Patterson is the Jazz & Classical correspondent for Birmingham Review.

Read Althea’s Foxhunter 7 blog here: http://foxhunter7.wordpress.com

& follow her Twitter feed here: https://twitter.com/TheFoxHuntress