Besides the now defunct Rover car plant and Cadbury's chocolate factory, there's no real shorthand for Birmingham. However, the writer and filmmaker Jonathan Meades most memorably pointed out that it's a city built by – and for – the car; an assessment best illustrated by the complex cardiovascular system of dual-carriageways and fly-overs that work their way around the place.
The Central Library and the wider complex of which it was a part, Paradise Forum, stood above the city's inner ring road – a great, hulking form designed by John Madin, who also conceived many of Birmingham's other Brutalist buildings. A big old block of concrete looming over the cars that hurtled through the tunnel below.
For a while it succeeded as a place of study, becoming the largest non-state library in Europe. But its real success lay in its second life as a haven for Birmingham's various subcultures. Skating, for example, was synonymous with the Library long before I started going there to gawp at my first love, a cocky 15-year-old in Emerica shoes and a curved visor. Sadly, this wasn't to last; by the mid-2000s, as the council clamped down and installed more skate-stoppers, the Paradise scene all but died.
Last month, the demolition team moved in on the Library and Paradise Forum. It's a devastating blow to fans of Brutalist architecture and a short-sighted move from a council trying desperately to assert Birmingham's place on the global stage. In its place there are plans to build yet another glass-fronted office block.
Ironically, in a bid to modernise itself for the sake of attracting foreign investment, the council is creating a city so homogenous and devoid of character that you wonder if it will seem attractive to anyone besides the archetypal office drone. When financial investment comes at the expense of local interest, the results can lead to warring factions, as opposed to mutual benefit.
Sadly, since the skaters were pushed out some years ago, there was little hope of a Save Southbank-style campaign to protect the Library. Still, I caught up with two legends of the Birmingham skate scene to remember some of the happier days in the life of one of Birmingham's most iconic buildings.
Mark Preston, AKA Zippy
Manager of Birmingham skate store, Ideal
I started skating at the Library around 1985, before they built the shops on the ground floor. It was undercover so it was dry and it had a three-set of steps that was really grindy. You didn't get much hassle, the police left you alone and, of course, there was no Sunday shopping, so it was just skateboarders and alcoholics and tramps. We had the place to ourselves. By the time skating had really taken off again, around '87 or '88, there could be sessions down there with up to 100 people. Kids doing slappy grinds and wearing silly hats. We'd drag benches around, sit there and smoke the £5 draw we bought at Cannon Hill park. Back then Birmingham city centre was amazing for skateboarding. The 60s planning with a strong bias towards Brutalist architecture meant there were lots of subways and lots of stair-sets to skate, which, of course, were always dry. The whole city was a playground and Central Library was where you started your day because it was at the highest point. Then you'd just race through the city in a big gang, running lights because there wasn't any traffic, down to Aston University like a scene from The Warriors. I consider myself really privileged to have been around for that small amount of time when the city really was a public space.
Then they redeveloped the bottom of the Library and installed shops, but there were still a few three-sets round the back and front. Eventually, though, they put stoppers and tactile paving all along there, too.
Up until recently there was still one remnant of the original part, which everyone just called "Paradise". There's a backdoor out of the shopping bit where you could just see the end of an old three-set. That survived right until they shut it down a few weeks ago. A last vestige of the 80s.
The problem with the Library is that it was an unfinished project – they never saw Madin's design up to the end. It was meant to be marble-clad and would have looked spectacular, but they cheapskated it like they always do. There's been a big campaign in Birmingham to save the Library, which should be a listed building as it's a pivotal example of mid-century Brutalist design, and there's nothing like it elsewhere in the UK. The design inside was completely bastardised – it was meant to be self-cooling and have lots of natural light, but as the years went by they added mezzanine floors and fucked up the entire internal structure, which made it seem dreary and enclosed. It was the exact opposite of what the design was meant to do.
People wanted to save it and turn it into a public space, but Birmingham city council are incredibly short-sighted and just want blingy, new, ridiculous buildings like the new cube they built with Marco Pierre Tosspot's restaurant on top; vulgar, gross looking thing. None of it hangs together or looks good.
It will return to smack them in the face, though, I'm sure. Even the new library isn't working. They're having to cut back on resources, getting rid of the archive. Here they have a beautiful building that they could use and they're bulldozing it to build more glass-fronted offices like everywhere else. They're planning to make a big public square, but you know it's going to be the type of place where, if you're seen doing anything other than drinking expensive coffee, you'll get kicked out.
Daniel Ball, AKA Jagger
Store Manager, Supreme London
I started skating at the Library around 1986 or '87. I'm from Wolverhampton, but I'd travel to Birmingham because Central Library was the spot. A bit like Southbank is to London. It was under cover and the ground level was completely empty, so we could build ramps without anyone bothering us. That was before Sunday shopping came [in 1994], when everything would be closed for that one day of the week. God, we really hated the introduction of Sunday shopping.
I started skating in the first boom since the whole craze had died down in the 1970s. There weren't many skaters during the mid-80s, apart from a core group of older, gnarly guys who hadn't given up. We were all scared of them, but after a while they eventually took us in. Those guys did freestyle – intricate tricks on the little boards – and there was a famous guy called Eric who went to the world championships. I forget his surname now...
Zippy and I were the generation who came up at the time of the Bones Brigade, which followed after the popularity of BMX. You know, when big wide boards first came out. Even after they redeveloped Central Library and built shops on the ground floor we would skate the steps around the front and back. It still suited us because street skating became popular in the 1990s and that's when people started jumping down steps. It was around that time that I was featured in RAD magazine.
The skate scene in Birmingham at that time was really good. We had the skate park called Birmingham Wheels, which was on a rubbish dump in Bordesley Green by Birmingham City football ground. They started getting kicked out of a lot more places by the late-1990s, but I'd already moved to America to skate by then.
We used to have comps in the Library. Real grassroots stuff that people would come to from all over the country. I remember once we all got kicked out of the Library and moved to a car park nearby.
Skateboarders accept that spots come and go, and the kids will find somewhere else to go. I'm more interested in why Birmingham City Council won't preserve these great works of architecture. I've grown up with that style and it's part of the fabric of the city.
I've got two kids now, so it's hard to go for a drink with all the old crew, but I got a chance to visit the Library one last time last year, and I've seen the plans for the new thing they're building in its place. In ten years time it will look outdated, but that Brutalist style would have always looked forever.
(Background photo in the thumbnail by Andrew Miller via)
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