These are dire times for Brutalism in Birmingham but the battle for the city’s soul isn’t over yet. Paradise Circus has already suggested six tactics we might employ in the effort to preserve our concrete heritage and now I’d like to suggest a few more:
Library Story: a history of Birmingham Central Library by Alan Clawley
“I read book once,” says Mr Heslop — played by Brian Glover — in Porridge, “green it was.” And I’m fairly sure if the green book Mr Heslop had read was on architecture or morality then it was one more book than any of the people involved in the decision to demolish John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library have ever skimmed.
I’ve just read a book, called Library Story, by long time campaigner for the library Alan Clawley — which is nothing more than heartbreaking as it reveals how influence and patronage rips through the city, how the cosy collusion of the media — it’s a small town, after all — allows scrutiny to be sidelined. And it shows just how decisions are taken, and defended against logic.
What the book isn’t is a book about the building, or really about about the history of its use. It moves very quickly from construction and opening to the campaign to prevent demolition. But that campaign, doggedly and determinedly helmed by the author reveals more about decision making in Birmingham than anything the Kerslake Report has done, and more than a million council consultation events will ever do.
The demolition of Madin’s Library is victory for cliché and gormless ‘opinion’. A triumph of pluralistic ignorance, with the blood on the hands of an unimaginative fourth estate who sleepwalked with what passes for a second round these parts into an act of pointless vandalism.
Karl Marx developed a theory of what’s now called creative destruction: he postulated that capitalism needs continual cycles of devaluation or destruction in order to clear the ground for the creation of new wealth. As Stereolab explain, this is often by recession or war — but in our local context neglect and bogus ‘civic renewal’ serve the purpose. Capitalism has won over beauty, and the cheers of the braying classes as the thin exterior is punctured celebrate the powerlessness of all under money’s rule.
It is a war, a war for history and the public realm. The casualty of this war is beauty. The collateral damage the psyche and soul of the city.
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.
We’ve already signed off for the holidays but we know that some of you are still in the office today — after all, there’s no work to do and the boss will let you go home at 12 in any case so it’s basically a free day off and only a mug would take it as holiday.
Well anyway, as you’re the sort of person who is in the office on Christmas Eve we figured you’re also the sort of person who has left shopping a bit late — after all, you’re getting out of work at lunchtime so you can just grab stuff on the way home; what’s all the fuss about, right?
If you are still shopping, and if you’re at the office with nothing to do, why not print off a few copies of our FREE 2015 calendar? Elliott Brown tirelessly snaps photos of all things Brum, and he uploads them to Flickr under a Creative Commons license so we’ve nabbed 12 photos of Brummie Brutalism for this calendar.
We hope you like it, but if you need more gift ideas here’s our handy last minute shopping guide.
Central Library is a good quarter fit for the convention quarter and you can just make the Library Theatre into a revue bar as part of a turnkey hospitality solution: global heart, local strippers.