Birmingham is demolishing its brutalist public buildings – just as they come back into fashion

The scene of the crime: Birmingham's Chamberlain Square. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

When Prince Charles first caught sight of Birmingham Central Library during a visit 30 years ago, he’s purported to have spluttered: “It looks more like a place for burning books than keeping them.”

In terms of form the Central Library is hard, blocky and exquisitely realised. The squat, inverted ziggurat set amidst Blade Runner-esque towers and gantries are reminiscent of nothing less than a space station – as if a slightly retro civilisation of space travellers decided to set up camp in the centre of Britain’s second city.

There are few easy earthly architectural comparisons, beyond the ancient ruined cities of South America, Cambodia and central Iraq. The overall effect is one of sublimity rather than beauty, of brutalism at its brutist, of brutalism at its best.

Yet, within weeks it will be no more. Birmingham City Council has been seeking to demolish the place for years. Now, a gathering speculative property boom in Birmingham, engendered by the promise of HS2 (and the fact that even London can’t absorb all the capital pouring into the UK’s property market) is providing the incentive for developers to do something about it.

Officially, in the 40 years since its opening the Central Library has become symbolic of a grey, concreted vision of Birmingham that the city council is keen to shed. Unofficially, with the Council’s budget position amongst the worst in the country, a situation graphically illustrated by the eye watering cuts proposed at the Central Library’s successor only 18 months after it opened, the money gained by selling the building’s prime city centre site is much needed.

It’ll be history that judges whether the Council has made the right call. Public opinion regarding mid-20th century architecture has undergone a sea change since the 1980s, when Prince Charles issued his glib pronouncements about modern architecture.

This shift in attitudes is bound up with an undoubtedly rose-tinted view of the post-war era as a time of optimism, of social openness and progress. All the same, it’s clear that the taste for post-war architecture now extends far beyond the architectural profession. Witness English Heritage’s decision last month to extend listed status to 14 standout examples of post-war office design.

In Birmingham, meanwhile, the Bond villain-or at least Austin Powers-worthy houses designed by John Madin, the father of the Central Library, sell for up to £1.8m and rarely for much less than £500,000. Sadly, the dwindling might of press led years ago to the replacement of his Post & Mail Building – the West Midland’s greatest contribution to the international style – with an underground car park.

Could Birmingham Central Library be a “Euston Arch” moment for modernists? Undoubtedly so. The claims of “social cleansing” that surround the redevelopment of other brutalist masterpieces like the Park Hill Estate are well founded. But Urban Splash’s work in Sheffield showcases how a modern building can be wonderfully rehabilitated, given some care. Conservation needn’t be preservation in aspic.

Given Birmingham’s recent economic uptick and the public’s growing fondness for modernism, it’s easy to imagine the Central Library becoming a popular social or cultural centre. Perhaps garishly painted, swathed in street art or at least cleaned, it could have become a symbol of Birmingham’s post-war prosperity, as it blends into another brighter period.

Perhaps that’s the problem? Birmingham’s brutalism, what remains of it at least, is a reminder of a time when Birmingham’s economy was roaring, when a society of equality and plenty seemed within grasp. At a time when libraries across the city are closing rather than opening such optimism seems a nostalgia trip.  

 
 
 
 

When should you forget the bus and just walk?

Might as well talk, tbh. Image: Getty.

It can often be tempting to jump on a bus for a short journey through the city, especially when it’s raining or you’re running behind schedule. Where there are dedicated bus lanes in place, it can feel as though you speed past gridlocked traffic. But as city authorities begin new initiatives to get people walking or cycling, that could all change – and so could you.

British people are wasting tens of hours in traffic every year: London comes top, with the average commuter spending 74 hours in traffic, followed by Manchester, with 39 hours and Birmingham and Lincoln, both with 36 hours.

It might surprise some people to learn that cities are intentionally slowing down private vehicles, in order to shift people to other, more efficient, modes of transport. In fact, Transport for London removed 30 per cent of the road capacity for private vehicles in central London between 1996 and 2010. That trend continues today, as the organisation gives over more space for buses, cyclists and pedestrians.

London’s road capacity, over time. Image: Transport for London/author provided.

Clamp down on cars

The loss of road capacity for cars has occurred across most UK cities, but not on the same scale everywhere. The good news is that the changes, when made, appear to have reduced actual car congestion. It seems that by making it less attractive to use your car, you’ll be more likely to use other transport. In fact, the average speed of buses and cyclists can be up to twice as fast as normal traffic in cities such as London.

The relationship between walking and improved health has been proven to such an extent that it seems everyone – your doctor, your family, regional and national government – wants to increase physical activity. The savings in health care costs, are via improved fitness, reduced pollution and improved mental health, and its impact on social care are huge.

For instance, Greater Manchester wants to increase the number of people who get the recommended level of exercise (only about half currently do). The most advanced of these plans is London’s, which has the specific goal of increasing the number of walks people take by a million per day.

So, the reality is that over the next few years, walking will gradually appear more and more “normal” as we are purposefully nudged towards abandoning our rather unhealthy, sedentary lifestyles.


The long journey

Consider this: the typical bus journey in the UK is almost three miles, with an average journey time of around 23 minutes. The equivalent walk would take approximately 52 minutes, travelling at just over three miles per hour. It seems obvious that the bus is much faster – but there’s much more to consider.

People normally walk at least a quarter of a mile to and from the bus stop – that’s roughly ten minutes. Then, they have to wait for a bus (let’s say five minutes), account for the risk of delay (another five minutes) and recover from the other unpleasant aspects of bus travel, such as overcrowding.

This means that our 23 minute bus journey actually takes 43 minutes of our time; not that much less than the 52 minutes it would have taken to walk. When you think of the journey in this holistic way, it means you should probably walk if the journey is less than 2.2 miles. You might even choose to walk further, depending on how much value you place on your health, well-being and longevity – and of course how much you dislike the more unpleasant aspects of bus travel.

The real toss up between walking and getting the bus is not really about how long it takes. It’s about how we change the behaviour and perceptions we have been conditioned to hold throughout our lives; how we, as individuals, engage with the real impacts that our travel decisions have on our longevity and health. As recent converts to walking, we recommend that you give it a go for a month, and see how it changes your outlook.

The Conversation

Marcus Mayers, Visiting Research Fellow, University of Huddersfield and David Bamford, Professor of Operations Management, University of Huddersfield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.