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.  

 
 
 
 

Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”