This essay features as part of our 2015 Brutal calendar — which is free to download today, but will be half price if you wait until the New Year.
If you’ve ever seen a photo of Central Library architect John Madin you might notice that he always seems to be wearing a suit. I’m guessing that for a man in his profession in the ’50s and ’60s that isn’t too unusual. But somehow it seems too conventional for a man that produced such stark and, even now, startling buildings.
Ian Francis from 7 Inch Cinema once described to me in detail his concept for a TV show set in the architecture scene in Birmingham in the middle of the last century. It would have Madin in it, of course, but also Harry Weedon of Handsworth (the designer of many won- derful Art Deco Odeons and a number of huge car plants and fac- tories) and Jim Roberts of the Rotunda (and King’s Heath). They deserve commemorating. These were men at the top of their game and every bit as much of a part of the story of the British ’60s as anything to do with skirts or guitars.
They’re slowly being pulled down, not just the buildings but the men too. Roberts and his Rotunda survive, Madin doesn’t and neither soon will his masterpiece. We lose loads if we clone stamp them out of history.
In her novel The News Where You Are Catherine O’Flynn draws these parallels between the modern dismissal of the worth of unfashionable buildings and the lack of care paid to people who aren’t in some way useful to society. Birmingham City Council are having parts of their collective anatomy warmed as a warning by central government that they have failed the vulnerable, children especially. Their first announcements to deflect attention from this were focused on their decisions to not look after our vulnerable architectural heritage; or even the use of their toy-like descendants.
Those campaigning to save Central Library, or those miffed at the cavalier way that its destruction is not open for debate, may not realise that the Rotunda nearly suffered in the same way. It got the help it needed.
Colin Toth saved the Rotunda from demolition in 1991, and it eventually got listed and refurbished: the 21 storeys forced through a post-modernist 12 steps programme. Make it bright, they say, and it can stay.
I met James Roberts a few years ago at the launch of a book we were both featured in — 21 Stories, Nic Gaunt’s oral history of the building — and he was not only charming but charmed at the attention and love that his building has attracted. He also managed to tuck away quite a lot of the free wine. And he was wearing a suit. TV execs looking for a West Midlands answer to Mad Men, get on it.
Big buildings, big ideas, big building blocks. They were big men; and not just because they spent their days being photographed towering over model villages.