SW Weekend 2: Written in Concrete

Written in Concrete was my personal reflection on concrete in Birmingham. Something I realised a while back formed the basis of the tour: it was the myth that “they” knocked down all the beautiful old buildings in Birmingham and replaced them with concrete. The reality is that the Victorians tore down Georgian Birmingham (almost entirely) and that Victorian Birmingham is still there. The city was a major target during WWII and we rebuilt the damaged parts of the city to reflect images of wartime defence: robust, uncompromising concrete edifices that could withstand attack, if it ever came to it. Or look like it could. But we left the brick and terracotta alone for the most part.

That attack came quite soon and was unforgiving and relentless. Concrete’s critics didn’t draw a distinction between the thoughtful, unforgettable designs of John Madin, Richard Seifert and Ian Fraser and meaningless pebble dashed expanses constructed on the cheap. “Moron-made cities,’ was the memorable review in the architecture press in the 50s of the Brutalist style. Brutalism was probably too much too soon; a reaction to the horrors and devastation of war, and with nearly nothing prefiguring it. I see it as part of a greater movement at that time to shake things up and express something monumental but human. The Angry Young Men of British literature and theatre, abstract expressionism in art and Elvis Presley in music. Only the Brutalists were there first!

It’s actually quite hard to find the kind of concrete vistas people see when they think of Birmingham – people who haven’t visited the city for a while, or ever. When looking for a backdrop for publicity photos, it was hard enough to find anything I could just stand in front of. It takes a while to get used to a new building or style of architecture – longer than deciding if you like your new boots. A generation isn’t enough, but some classic examples of C20th design are being taken down already only to be replaced with something forgettable, and worse – cheap looking. Planners today are embarrassed by concrete the way the planners of the 50s saw Victorian opulence as desperately old fashioned. The Victorians didn’t have time for the boring Georgians. What looks like a Georgian facade is often a plastered- or bricked-up timber framed building, hidden to appear more fashionable…the Georgian’s winced at houses made of wood. The timber framed buildings are now highly sought after properties and go for a fortune; restoration programmes spend millions saving the few remaining examples.

The city becomes its own museum – where else are you going to put a building? (Actually you could take it to Avoncroft) …if you wait long enough, everything qualifies. I think of the fascinating glimpses into the past seen in old buildings: names etched on the window with a diamond ring, or initials carved into the stone walls. Eventually even graffiti becomes a historical trace. I worked in Central Library for years and really became fond of it during that time. It was always boiling hot whatever the weather, because its stacks’ expansion space had been leased out to offices and the air didn’t move around freely anymore. Central Library’s original architect John Madin was brought in to suggest a solution. “Remove the extra offices,” was his brutal (but truthful) response. One stated reason for the library being demolished is that it has run out of room for books. Central Librarians are currently being asked to discard ever more books so everything will fit into the new building. It doesn’t have enough shelf space before it has even opened – “moron-made libraries”. I met Madin last year at the launch of his biography by Alan Clawley. He wouldn’t comment on his buildings being torn down, but was animated in his disgust at the Paradise Forum commercial insertion into his building. For a long time the Central Library didn’t carry a sign to identify it – McDonalds was the only visible brand on the building. The manager at Paradise Forum Wetherspoons once asked me where I worked. “In the reference library,” I replied. “Where’s that?” he replied. “It’s there, ” I said, pointing up. “The roof!”

I decided I wanted to pay my respects to John’s passing late last year. Inspired by that year’s peaceful anti-capitalist protest occupations, I decided to invite my group to a quiet, solemn moment at the bar of Wetherspoon’s at the end of the tour. I didn’t want to alarm the staff and felt a minute would be enough time to stand there and gentlymake our point. The gesture went unnoticed, and if you’ve ever tried to get served at that bar, you may appreciate why that was. We quietly left.

Elvis has left the building.

Birmingham Central Library from Chamberlain Square

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