Brutal Disregard – Redcar Library / from the archive / issue 4

The North East has an unexpected relationship with all things brutal. Its landscapes have inspired such distopic images as Ridley Scott’s apocalyptic ‘Blade Runner’ and the bleak, grainy photography of Don McCullin.   Even James Stirling once referred to the industrial wastelands as the landscape of ‘satanic slag heaps’.

In the industrial boom of the post-war decades, architecture found a language that responded directly to the inhuman, mechanised prospect of the region’s burgeoning steel works and petrochemical enterprises.  It was an architecture that responded with integrity to the chastened social wants of the industrial towns and mining villages, to the callousness of the steely grey skies, chimneys and sea. 

Redcar library was an exemplary building of this kind.  Tucked away from the noise of the sea-front arcades and fish and chip shops, the library exemplified the changing attitudes of the time towards learning, culture and education.  Redcar led the way for new public buildings of this kind, moving away from the elitism and civic pomp of previous generations, and introducing social aspects like coffee shops, exhibition spaces and children’s play areas into the library building. 

“The library should never be considered as a monument or as a cultural retreat; but a source of pleasure, recreation, information and learning; readily available to all”. David Roessler, AJ

The space was laid out as a large, flexible public space, recognisable as a library only by the shelves of books, the building itself a single storey mass of folded iron roofs, formed by castellated steel beams that spanned the entire width of the interior.  The portal frame was an integral feature specified by the council to allow the building to be flexible – it was part of the long term ambition for the library in its changing social and cultural role.  The deep industrial-sized steel beams were contrasted against warm, soft materials like the burnt orange carpet that ran throughout.  

 

Redcar library extolled the virtues of civic buildings playing a vital cultural role in public life,  a reflection of the egalitarian ideals and social ambitions of the town and a symbol of where Redcar wanted to be in the late 1960s.  More than that, it was an example of a sort of modernist vernacular – a kind of Brutalist architecture that grew out of its place.  The folds and creases of the library roof ripple like the steely North Sea waves.  The brazen exposure of its steely construction was a warts-and-all declaration of where this building stood; at the centre of a small seaside town in the shadow of Europe’s largest steel manufacturing plant; ‘a hymn to steel'.[1]

In 2011, Redcar and Cleveland council announced the ‘Redcar Civic and Leisure Quarter’.  It would see the demolition of the 40 year old library and its replacement with a cluster of new quasi-public buildings; a sports centre, new civic centre and a replacement for the library building. The 1960s library at this time was only just reaching maturity and like all buildings of that era, it was beginning to show signs of its age.  Its fabric was leaky; the roof, built as it was, entirely from steel and glass, acted as a vast cold bridge.   The sea spray had stained the gnarly steel work with rust like all seafront buildings in the town.

But the steel roof was the defining character of the building. The trusses enabled its open plan interior, modelled more on the social hub of an agora than the solitariness of the traditional library building. The construction in steel reflected the pride of the town council, eager to exhibit local manufacture. It is an expression, even an extension of the context in which it is bound.  And as it approached ‘middle-age’, its signs of weather and wear became emblematic of the battles fought over the previous decades, the political, social and economic hardships that had beset the town. 

The announcement to demolish the building came at the end of a year that saw the steelworks slowly and definitively closed down; the largest blast furnace in Europe stood cold on the town’s horizon. The demolition of the library was pitched politically as a regenerative boost to the town’s economy; the creation of jobs and employment prioritised over the retention of Redcar’s recent architectural heritage.  The steel frame would be dismantled, synchronized with the decommissioning of the neighbouring steel works, the town’s former identity slowly and painfully cleared for rebuilding. 

Towards the end of last year the steel works were suddenly bought up; their fate re-written.  The blast furnaces started up again.  The library though was already condemned.  Political will had forced through its demolition to make way for Redcar’s new era and new service-oriented identity.          

For all that it might have looked gnarly, weather-beaten, brutal even, the library reflected an inimitable sensitivity to place. It symbolised an era of ambition and idealism, and exemplified, even celebrated, the steelworks that were, and continue to be, the lifeblood of the region.  In the moment prior to its demolition, it stood as a monument to the bittersweet history of the town and its demonic neighbour.  Now demolished, the library’s vacant site sits as a guilty reminder of its brutal disregard.

[1] Paul Finch

© James Perry

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 4 'BRUTAL'