Here in Birmingham we await the results of the competition to see which starchitect will be delivering us their iconic vision for the future of the city’s library. As you can imagine, we’re all jolly excited about it *cough*.

Before we get to this bright new future, the previous one has to be dealt with. The city is determined to demolish the existing library and Margaret Hodge will soon be faced with deciding the fate of another part of our brutalist history.


Designed by John Madin, one of Birmingham’s most prolific and well respected 20th Century architects, the library was completed in 1974, controversially replacing its much loved Victorian predecessor. Like other’s being hotly debated at the moment (Robin Hood Gardens) it wears it’s structural heart on it’s sleeve and seems well suited to refurbishment rather than demolition. They’ve found a way to do it with Park Hill in Sheffield and elsewhere in Birmingham we’ve seen the reopening of the city’s other ‘icon’ from the same period – the Rotunda. A building that in my opinion achieved iconic status by way of it’s Lynch-friendly urban node location and height only, rather than any inherent architectural quality.

That said, petitions signed by the architecture fraternity screaming for the retention of a period piece like Robin Hood Gardens for it’s architectural value alone make me deeply uncomfortable. Does it actually work as a home, or in this case a library, anymore? If you want to tear down a cherished monument, is it wise to ask the people it was designed to monumentalize?

I argued for the retention of the Bull Ring, but in that case, as well as here, my position is perhaps summed up by one simple observation: Oh dear, here we go again.

Alan Clawley from Birmingham’s Friends of Central Library was kind enough to come over to our office last week and give us a showing of a 1965 BBC documentary that John Madin has given him permission to distribute.

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Filmed as part of a series following six influential men, this episode (in the somewhat predictably entitled ‘Six Men’ series) provides a perfect freeze frame of the period. Bold and assertive, ambitiously moving into a future whose success is dependent on the amount of it that can be controlled by the vision of one man – “I’d like to design a town, completely“.

Madin was the starchitect of his day.

It’s too good to be left on DVD alone, so I’ve released it on the world via Google video (click the link, I can’t get the embedded option to work here): Six Men – John Madin

It’s a fascinating piece of footage, but for me the most important moment comes a few minutes in as we see Madin discussing projects with his staff, one of which is my much missed friend and mentor, Tony Goodall, leaning on his board the same way he used to when teaching me many years later.

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There’s a collection of stills in a flickr set (Six Men) that capture a few moments from the film and I’ve also added the movie to the architecture video pod I run:

Also, footage of Madin himself recently discussing the fate of his building is available via The Stirrer.

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