Review | Birmingham: The Brutal Years | Exam
I can’t remember who I stole that phrase from, but when I talked about the appreciation of architecture, I often referred to the idea of historical shadow. It is the idea that after a certain lapse of time, a period of architectural production falls under the shadow of discredit. After more time, the shadow moves, the light falls again on the period in question, and it is reevaluated.
We can relate this to our own perception, and the process is very understandable. The practical problem with this is that for the duration of the shadow many buildings deemed unsavory are demolished. Their subsequent reassessment is of academic interest only.
The Victorians considered Georgian architecture boring and demolished large amounts of it. We now appreciate it very much. I became a conservationist in the 1970s and joined the Victorian Society, when Victorian architecture was widely written off and demolished indiscriminately. He is now considered respectable and interesting, that’s what’s left of him.
The historical shadow has now shifted to the middle of the 20e modernism of the century. (Following the rhythm of the shadows, I am now, in addition to defending Victorian architecture, also a member of the case committee of the 20e society of the century). Products from the mid 20se century modernism are under threat across the country, nowhere more so than in Birmingham.
It is disconcerting to see how buildings, which at the time of their construction received so much praise and were the pride of the citizens, become the object of hatred and derision a few decades later, and generate calls for their demolition. . An outstanding illustration of this process is Birmingham Central Library, designed by John Madin and opened by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1974.
It was a monumental inverted ziggurat, prefabricated and on the spot concrete: labeled as brutalism, although Madin denied the term. It was the largest municipal library, outside of a capital, in Europe, and a building that the city council was extremely proud to own. Madin Library replaced the Grade II listed Reference Library of 1882, for which, as a new member of the Victorian Society, I gave evidence against its demolition at the 1973 Public Inquiry.
Forty years later, I was a member of the Friends of the Central Library, formed in 2006, campaigning against the proposed demolition of Madin Library. Two recommendations for statutory inscription were made by English Heritage, in 2003 and 2009, both rejected by the Secretaries of State. There were charges of political interference in both cases.
Several practical reasons for demolition were given by the Council and by the Argent developers, who planned to redevelop the site as commercial space. All of these reasons have been shown by Friends to be baseless. It could have been kept and, if necessary, reused for a new purpose. The real reason for its demolition was that it was viscerally hated by those in power (conveniently, for the commercial redevelopment opportunity its demolition offered), just as its Victorian predecessor was forty years earlier.
“So did Birmingham learn anything from this prank?” It seems not.
In 2015, the Friends were joined in their campaign by a new organization, Brutiful Birmingham. In addition to defending the library (which was later demolished in 2015), Brutiful took on the larger task of educating people to see the merits of mid-20e architecture of the century. Over the past five years, three of the band members – Mary Keating, Jenny Marris and John Bell – have written a monthly column in the Birmingham Post, featuring 20e buildings of the century, many of which are little known and often threatened.
Their first column was the approximately 225 meter long Ringway Center – offices and shops on Smallbrook Queensway in the city centre. It was designed by James Roberts, architect of the nearby Rotunda, and opened in 1962. Andy Foster, author of the Pevsner Guide to Birmingham, described it as “the best piece of mid-C20 urban design in the city”. This beautiful building was threatened with demolition when the column was written, and it still is today.
The authors have now produced a book – Birmingham: The Brutal Years – containing a selection of their 60 columns, with commentary and additional photographs. Published by The Modernist, it’s a beautiful production that covers a wide range of buildings. There are pages on Spaghetti Junction (50 years old this year), relief sculptures by William Mitchell, the churches of Maguire and Murray and Richard Gilbert Scott, and two of my favourites, the University of Birmingham buildings of Howell, Killick, Partridge and Friends.
The term brutalist is perhaps used a little too indiscriminately, as is often the case. But everything the authors write is interesting and deserves attention. Will this have an effect on the perception of those who make the decisions? Regarding the needless destruction of the library, they write: “So has Birmingham learned anything from this farce?” It seems not.