Living in a Material World

I like to introduce some of my guided walks with the observation that every square foot of our built environment is there deliberately. Someone has drawn, designed and created all of it (not the same person). It all has a job to do and the right – or adequate – materials have been chosen for the job.

It’s an obvious truth but one that’s so close to our everyday experience that it’s not always recognised. As a mental exercise, I also ask: how far do we have to go to escape the designed world? An area that exists in its unadapted, wild state? The countryside is something of an illusion of nature, largely created for agriculture. Woods and forests too are usually fenced off and manicured to a degree. Even rivers (especially the Rae) are culverted, re-routed and maintained.

Devising the Material World guided tour for Birmingham Architecture Festival gave me an opportunity to explore this one aspect of architecture: the changing use of building material over the years, and the reasons those materials were chosen. I wanted to ask why we rarely used our own local stone but would ship in expensive granites and marbles from around the world, if they had the right look. Architecture is prone to the same changing fashions as our garments: what seems current today can seem dated the next – and charmingly retro and worthy of preservation in the future. Fashions can also depend on availability: terracotta fell out of favour in the twentieth century as tastes for Victorian opulence waned – but also because huge projects like Victorian Law Courts seriously depleted the stock. Timber framed buildings are a rarity in Birmingham and when bricks became the dominant building material, wonky, draughty timber framed building became quickly embarrassing and old fashioned. I think of Birmingham as a “brick city”, but the brick kilns were being fired by the very woods that once provided timber for housing. There was no way to go back, even if we’d wanted to. Today, the city centre is entirely devoid of any timber buildings and those that remain anywhere are listed and command a high price for their cramped, unadaptable interiors.

Meanwhile brick has become a largely decorative feature, no longer structurally supportive in most buildings, but merely forming a “curtain wall” draped over a steel frame. The concrete revolution of the 60s dropped this pretense, with bold new shapes, structures and surfaces. On closer examination, these often revealed gentler pastel shaded pebbles and quartz added to the mix. Concrete had its fans and there will surely one day be the museum of the last concrete building in the city. And several decades on, concrete’s antithesis, the reflective glass skyscraper, still seems to be a classic theme.

I love the fact that buildings won’t stay still, seemingly as whimsical, vain, fashion-conscious and irrational as their human inhabitants. The uniform, logical city of Utopian vision is still, thankfully, a long way off.

Material World runs as part of Birmingham Architecture Festival on Monday 27th May (a bank holiday!) at 3pm. Places are limited and tickets can be bought in advance, which can be done via this link


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