It should come as no surprise that England’s second city has systematically destroyed much of its best modernist architecture. It has form for this kind of iconoclasm, says Ben Flatman
How does an architect respond when many of their most recognisable built works are threatened with demolition? This is the situation that confronted John Madin, the leading Birmingham modernist architect, during his own life time. Madin proudly defended his Central Library right up until his death. He argued that not only was it a perfectly good library, but that it was also financially and environmentally wasteful for the city to replace it with a new one, on a cramped site, just a couple of hundred metres away. Sadly, the long-running campaign to save Madin’s building finally came to an end this year, as the city’s ever-busy demolition crews moved in to do their work. As Madin predicted, Mecanoo’s new library now struggles with huge debt repayments and recently slashed its opening hours.
Although he didn’t live to see it, the demolition of his library means that few of Madin’s major works now survive. Several of those that are left are also under threat. In a city as bereft of good modern architecture as Birmingham, losing so much of Madin’s legacy is a tragedy. Many of the most significant modernist buildings from a key period in the city’s history have now been systematically destroyed.
Some will wonder what this pattern of destruction says about the city and its relationship to the built environment. To be fair to Birmingham, it seems unlikely that the civic grandees have been singling out Madin. Birmingham has a long history of destroying its best architecture, going back decades. Despite Joseph Chamberlain’s Victorian city having once been seen as a global model for good urban governance, this has never prevented subsequent council administrations from seeking to erase all evidence of it. In the Thirties, Charles Barry’s King Edward’s School was replaced by an Odeon cinema (not even a good one). And in the Sixties and Seventies vast swathes of Victorian Birmingham were bulldozed to build the inner ring road. Pugin’s Bishop’s House made way for more asphalt, although St Chad’s Cathedral itself was miraculously spared. Now once again the best architecture from an entire architectural era has been almost erased.
The town should not, with God’s help, know itself
The real reason for Birmingham’s obsession with self-destruction is probably more mundane than any pathological dislike for good architecture. It’s difficult not to see Birmingham’s fixation on rebuilding itself as partly due to an underlying lack of self-confidence. The city seems perpetually embarrassed by the perceived failings of its urban fabric. As urban designer and long-time Birmingham commentator Joe Holyoak has observed, whenever a new development is proposed, the city is prone to making “facile comparisons… with places in London in order to justify its existence”. A new shopping centre is invariably referred to as “Birmingham’s Covent Garden”. Meanwhile, Birmingham’s actual Victorian markets were of course bulldozed in the Seventies.
Over time, the addiction to knocking things down and repeated attempts at reinvention has actually come to define what Birmingham stands for. Upon embarking on an ambitious period of urban development in the nineteenth century, Chamberlain prophesied that, “The town should not, with God’s help, know itself.” Birmingham still seems rather uncertain of its own identity even today. Ever since Chamberlain, each new generation of leaders has sought to use wholesale demolition and rebuilding to usher in a new and better city. Creative reuse and adaptation of old buildings is largely anathema to Birmingham’s developers and planners. By constantly promising to sweep away the “old” Birmingham and start again, they have established a tradition of endless cycles of almost frantic rebuilding. As a consequence, one of the city’s most recognisable qualities is its impermanence. You often sense that what is being built is only provisional and not expected to be there for very long, as the next wave of reinvention will be along shortly.
Most recently, Future Systems’ Selfridges, Mecanoo’s library and AZPML’s New Street Station all have a similar light-hearted but throw-away feel to them – the best examples of a surface-obsessed architecture that doesn’t seem to plan on being around for long. Seen in a positive light, this feeling of transience can sometimes give the city a sense of optimism and dynamism. Parts of this ever-changing cityscape now resemble the informally planned and frantically evolving cities of South East Asia – although sadly without the sunshine.
The city’s most notorious planner, Herbert Manzoni, was actually a civil engineer, with a background in waste water management. He also had little time for the city’s old buildings, and from the Fifties onwards he set about sweeping them away. John Madin was one of those who benefited most from that previous period of creative destruction. His own library replaced a much-loved Victorian building which was demolished to complete the ring road. Perhaps, then, the fate of Madin’s buildings is the only fitting end to the work of any architect brave or foolhardy enough to work in the city whose motto is simply “Forward”.