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.  

 
 
 
 

What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.