Wednesday, November 16, 2016

So Brutiful

Detail of the Ringway Centre
Photograph courtesy of Bs0u10oe01/Wikimedia Commons
Birmingham, England
Hello Everyone:

Once again, yours truly combed the archives for something a little less serious to talk about.  Blogger Candidate Forum can tackle the weightier subjects on Wednesday but Blogger wants to chat about Brutalist architecture.  A search of the archives yielded a fascinating article by Feargus O'Sullivan on the city of Birmingham, England's fight to save its Brutalist buildings from a date with the wrecking ball.  In his article, "Britain's Second City Fights to Save Its Brutalist Architecture,"  Mr. O'Sullivan looks at efforts by defenders of the genre to save some of the city's most striking architecture from falling in the name of redevelopment. Admittedly, they are glamorous and graceful building that recall a more genteel era.  These buildings are heavy rough textured concrete, the least liked building material.  Why the city of Birmingham?  Birmingham is the latest battleground in the global debate over whether Brutalist architecture is preservation worthy.
Castle Vale c.1960s terrace of council housing
Birmingham, England

The group leading the fight is the Brutiful Birmingham Action Group (you can check out their Facebook page), who are facing an uphill struggle to save the city's premier examples of mid-century concrete and glass minimalism.  Fortunately, quite a few prime examples still exist.  During the Second World War, severe pounding by the German Air Force destroyed most of the historic fabric of this industrial city.  The rampant destruction resulted in a tabla rasa that in some instances turned out to be a sort of advantage.  In the Post War period, sections of poorly constructed back-to-back row houses were replaced by modernist projects that presented better living conditions.

Nevertheless, the new construction was all roses and sunshine.  Central Birmingham was lacerated with automobile-centric planning during the post-war period which strangled the central core with a "...segregated highway-like beltway sometimes referred to as the 'Concrete Collar.'"  Surrounding the asphalt collar were a few buildings that were classic examples of why Brutalism is considered controversial.  Feargus O'Sullivan writes, "Birmingham's New Street Station was a dystopian cavern that looked like it was built for mole to huddle in after some cataclysm."  The Bull Ring Shopping Centre, by contrast, was thought of as a model mall in its day but high rents and low pedestrian traffic resulted in empty storefronts.

Birmingham Central Library (demolished)
John Madin
Birmingham, England
Therefore, few tears were shed when architectural innovations began falling away in the eighties.  Mr. O'Sullivan reports, "Traffic was diverted from the inner beltway, underpasses were replaced with pedestrian crosswalks."  Replacing it was, for lack of anything nicer to say, a postmodern blob.

Blobs aside, Brummies (as the locals are called)  shed tears when excellent examples of Brutiful buildings were lost.  Brummies mourned the loss of the Central Library, an upside down ziggurat from the late sixties, designed by local architect John Madin.  English Heritage ( tried twice to get it designated as a historic monument.  However, the City Council despised it so much that they overruled the organization and the library came down in 2015 in " of the worst architectural crimes in recent British history."  Brutalism aficionados are taking action to prevent the further destruction of anymore architectural gems.

Chamber of Commerce House
John Madin
Birmingham, England
They want to protect a number of structures.  This includes the Ringway Centre, a mixed use complex "...whose delicate curve and textured surfaces echo examples of British 19th-century grand planning, such as Newcastle's Grainger Town or London's Regent Street."  Another important site Brutalist fans want to keep from the wrecking is the low-key Chamber of Commerce House by John Madin and a wall underneath a flyover ornamented with sculpture by William Mitchell, who later created work in Honolulu and on San Francisco's BART.

The modernism skeptics would shrug off the idea of preserving these diamonds in the rough-"...even with its marble insets, slabs like the Chamber of Commerce House are still new enough and common enough throughout the world's cities; they lack the shine granted by rarity or great age."  Nevertheless, there is a potent argument to be made that this some the very best of Birmingham architecture.  Architect Joe Holyoke wrote in the Birmingham Post, "there's a lightness to these buildings' construction that belies assumptions about Brutalism's overbearing heft:"

[The Ringway Centre] building is a grand and elegant urban gesture.  Its curvature on plan and sweeping horizontal lines, its rhythm of vertical fins, together with its characteristic projecting concrete uplighters, make it still the most impressive piece of modern streetscape in the, even 54 years after its completion.  (http// date accessed Nov. 16, 2016)

Ringway Centre
Small brook, Queensway, Birmingham, England

The idea of sweeping away these structures, whatever you may think of them, is more irksome when you consider that rather than being completely razed, the Ringway Centre will be partly demolished, leaving the remainder to "...skinned and re-clad in more contemporary glass..., so that roomier, more easily-rentable office space can be created within."  Given that it has already been passed over for designation, its future remains in the balance.

These buildings are important to the city of Birmingham, even if they are not the most popular places, yet.  The United Kingdom's second city has consistently produced far more culture and thought than usually considered, but whatever architectural mementoes of that rich heritage have been lost to bombing or planners's carelessness.  Feargus O'Sullivan writes, "Birmingham's Brutalist buildings testify to the optimism of post-war Britain, where a fairer, cleaner, more modern society was being built on the ashes.  Right now, we need reminders of that optimism more than ever."  Amen to that

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