Birmingham and the Progress Trap

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Somebody recently asked me what I think of the new Library of Birmingham. My response was that it is certainly not as ugly as the last one. It’s not as bad as people think it is. But the problem with new building in Birmingham goes way beyond the Library. The fact is that Birmingham should not be making statement buildings, as it basically has nothing to say.

The city’s motto is “Forward”. This tells us that Birmingham is a Victorian city founded on Victorian values. We are trying to go “Forward” from Brutalism. But there is no going forward if you have abandoned your identity. If you don’t know who you are, you can easily fall victim to the kind of Futurism that has been plaguing British Architecture for the last half-century. A city that ignores its roots has a very narrow range of ideas to draw from when determining its identity. The Library of Birmingham is not the worst building in the world, but it is a painful reminder that we have learned nothing from Brutalism. We want to be considered cutting edge, cosmopolitan, but the painful truth is thrown back at us: we are not. David Starkey (12 mins in) says there is an  “vaccuum of identity” at the heart of the UK. I think he is right, and the Library of Birmingham is one of the signifiers. Before we can go forward, we must go back. Back to the founding of the city, and the ideals that created it. If we don’t we are destined to repeat this now familiar mistake.

VG – 9/1/14

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