Birmingham’s planners display a shocking lack of care for their city

Just months after the bulldozers moved in to demolish John Madin’s Central Library, Birmingham is facing another blow to its already dire reputation for conservation. This time, the city is scrapping three of its own conservation areas, including one that covers a cluster of arts and crafts houses in and around Barnsley Street. The loss of heritage value in these areas, which has led to their re-designation, has often been exacerbated by the inaction of the city council itself.

The city’s planners seem to have enthusiastically approved the demolition of a large section of the Barnsley Street area to make way for a depressing-looking “care” home. Andy Foster, author of the Pevsner guide to Birmingham, says the city’s planning department “either isn’t interested in conservation, or doesn’t know what conservation is”.

In 2014 the Kerslake Review made a damning indictment of Birmingham City Council, highlighting its silo culture and deafness to dissenting and external voices. Not much seems to have changed since, but it wasn’t always like this. After the massive destruction that afflicted the city in the 1960s and 70s, there was a brief respite to the demolition. Under the leadership of Sir Dick Knowles from 1984, Birmingham briefly forged a path as an early British pioneer in cultural regeneration. Symphony Hall was built to accommodate Simon Rattle’s ambitious plans for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the city took radical steps to reinvigorate its streets and key public spaces.

As the Kerslake Review acknowledged, “30 years ago Birmingham City Council was at the cutting edge of innovation in local government”. A long tradition of not having a senior city architect was reversed when Les Sparks was appointed director of planning and architecture in 1991. During this period the city woke up to its past mistakes and actively sought out those dissenting voices from outside. The 1988 Highbury Initiative, attended by Will Alsop and Terry Farrell, helped to set clear priorities for planning and development that made a major contribution to the city’s future direction.

A combination of intelligent planning and enlightened developers led to the creation two contrasting but equally successful schemes in the shape of the Custard Factory and Brindleyplace. The former helped kick-start Glenn Howells’ young practice, and the latter included Levitt Bernstein’s IKON Gallery, and a jewel-like café by CZWG.

The Custard Factory continues to thrive as a rare example of the creative reuse of a former industrial building in Birmingham. Meanwhile, many of the lessons learned at Brindleyplace were adopted and developed further by Allies & Morrison in their masterplan for Argent at Kings Cross. Sadly, rather than raising the design bar within Birmingham itself, this period in the city’s history now seems to stand as a stark reminder of how poorly the city has been managed since then.

So what explains the currently rudderless direction of the city? Andy Foster sees the current trajectory as a return to form, with Birmingham adopting its default approach to planning. “Any development is good development” seems to be the city’s mantra, while the quality of the wider urban landscape is largely forgotten. Tellingly, organising the next trip to Mipim appears to have become the extent of the council’s long-term planning.  

Birmingham desperately needs better leadership and management. But it also needs a prouder and more ambitious vision for its built environment. The autodidact Dick Knowles owned a shelf full of Pevsner guides, but there is little to suggest the city’s more recent leadership has had any genuine interest in architecture. The recent Big City Plan was a well-intentioned attempt to set a new trajectory, but seems to have lacked the strong underlying urban design principles, and perhaps the critical external voices, that helped make the Highbury Initiative a success.

Too often fixated on big projects, Birmingham needs to refocus on the finer grain of the city. Its local neighbourhoods desperately need nurturing to help release their potential. Many struggling cities around the world have successfully transformed their fortunes by realising the value of their own existing built environments. Entire cultural economies have been incubated and flourished within the types of post-industrial landscapes that used to define the rich texture of much of central Birmingham. And countless communities have thrived within the context of well-designed historic housing. Valuing what’s left of its sadly diminished built heritage might be a good place for Birmingham to start turning things around.

John Madin was first a victor, then a victim of Birmingham’s identity crisis

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

Joseph Chamberlain

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”.