In praise of Redcar Library
Back in May 2011, James and Claire from the SC+M team published a short article in praise of ABKs Redcar Library in the excellent modernist magazine under the set theme of ‘brutal’. A term sometimes associated as shorthand for brutalism, the building is neither brutal nor of the architectural movement. Instead it is suggested that the management and ultimate destruction of the building marks a turning point in the regard for the values extolled through by local council whom commission the library and demolished in a relatively short period. If you haven’t yet discovered the work and publications of the Manchester Modernists, check out their excellent site on blog and twitter.
The North East has an unexpected relationship with all things brutal. Its often baron landscapes have inspired everything from Ridley Scotts apocalyptic ‘Blade Runner’, the bleak, grainy photography of Don McCullin or even James Stirling description of the ‘satanic slag heaps’ of its industrial wasteland. But it has been through the architecture of the region that offer something far more positive than distopic futures, bleak immortalised memories or a landscape defined by the remnants of industry. Tucked away from the noise of the arcades and fish and chip shops in the small seaside town of Redcar, stood a rather unassuming library. For a town shaped by a mixture of lemon-top ice creams, seaside tourism and steel manufacture it’s probably difficult for most locals to consider that this rather unassuming building is anything more than another old local authority building.
Set back from Coatham Road, a single storey mass of folded corrugated iron roofs, profiled structure steel columns form the crinkles and creases of Redcar library. The orthogonal roof profiles ripple like a mechanical ocean waves against the shore bringing light into a deep building and providing seclusion within from the amusements. Portal frames that formed the structure and designed in the feature specified by the council for long term flexibility. It was a very public exhibition of local manufacturing and materials and probably as close to a modernist regional vernacular as you might find in the North East. Described by Paul Finch as ‘a hymn to steel’, it couldn’t be more at home in heart of steel manufacturing – Redcar.
The library was laid out as a large, flexible public space, recognisable as a library only by the shelves of books. The traditional library was reconfigured. Redcar led the way for new public buildings moving away from the elitism and civic pomp of previous generations such as the philanthropic Carnegie libraries, instead introducing a coffee shop, exhibition space and children’s play area around the main entrance to the building. The reference library and study areas were pushed to the rear or located on a raised mezzanine so as not to be disturbed by the noise from the café. The buildings programme was underpinned by a socially minded and egalitarian attitude that said education should be for everyone.
In buildings like Redcar Library, the post-war era reflected a profound sense of confidence and civic pride. A desire for betterment and education at the heart. In 2011, Redcar and Cleveland council, led by its first Liberal Democrat MP announced the ‘Redcar Civic And Leisure Quarter’, which planned the demolition the 40 year old library, replacing it with a new civic centre and swimming pool. Given the financial insolvency of local authorities, the demolition and rebuilding library seems an expensive and unnecessary extravagance given that widespread closure of libraries across the UK. A quick consultation was held (no mention of the library), a thermal survey untaken and a ‘botched’ heritage report submitted. From civic focus, to civic disgrace the library was demolished and delegated to the small corner of an anonymous council building to make way for new council edifice.
Redcar library extolled the virtues of civic buildings playing a vital cultural role in public life that reflected on who, what and where Redcar wanted to be in the late 1960s; learning, educating and reflecting on what it meant to live in a small seaside town. Deyan Sudjec suggests that buildings are “shaped by ego and fear of death as well as by political and religious impulses”, the psychology between the relationship the commissioners and users are entirely disconnected from the purpose of the buildings they create. At the end of an era of incalculable excess and public debt, the appetite to squander public money for short term political gain does more to suggest a succinct insecurity rather than self-confidence. The opportunity to rethink and refurbish this flexible structure where all too readily dismissed.
The library embodied not just the values, but physical, cultural and economic landscape of the area. The demolition of buildings is not just an unsustainable waste of a relatively new and flexible structure, but also the erasure of the post-war period from Redcar and Cleveland. In a small industrial town struggling to find itself in a post-industrial world, the demolition has removed this period entirely from existence, leaving only the fresh clouds of steam billowing from the nearby steel plant. Redcar seems like a town unable to move on from its industrial past perhaps pretending that the past 50 years never happened and starting all over once again. The landscapes and climates may be at times harsh, but the desire and will of some to demolish over refurbish remain the most brutal.
In early 2011, the Twentieth Century Society made a last minute listing application which was rejected by the former heritage minister John Penrose. In late 2011 the library was demolished for a new swimming baths and civic centre. Redcar and Cleveland borough council argued primarily that the building was inefficient to heat and therefore unsustainable. The library had, like many buildings of its era suffered from old construction methods, but certainly nothing that couldn’t be resolved. The building was awarded a category ‘D’ under the government Energy Performance Certificate scheme. If the council applied the same principles to its own current building stock, half of all of Redcar and Cleveland Borough Councils buildings would warrant demolition.