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.  


Cape Town is running out of water. What can be done about it?

Residents fill water bottles at a spring. Image: Getty.

In pre-colonial times the Khoisan called Cape Town, //Hui !Gaeb, the place “where clouds gather” and Camissa “the place of sweet waters”. The future of the city will be shaped by water as it was in the past. But far more attention will need to be paid to the drivers and early warning signs.

The city has been experiencing well below average rainfall over the last two-and-a-half years resulting in limited recharge of its main storage dams. The Western Cape region has been declared a disaster area amid a prolonged drought.

Rainfall over the next six weeks will be crucial. Cape Town has a Mediterranean climate with rains falling in the winter months. If there are no major thunderstorms and no significant interventions to bolster supplies from alternate sources such as local aquifers, treated effluent or desalination, then the city could run out of water by the end of year, or in early 2018.

Cape Town is almost entirely dependent on surface water from six main storage dams. Despite population growth and increased demand for water, it has successfully used water demand management over the past 17 years to conserve water by fixing leaks, reducing water pressures, educating users and restricting outdoor water use. But on their own these steps are unlikely to be adequate to avert “day zero”. Alternate water supplies need to be added.

There are two things that Cape Town needs to get right: firstly, it must improve its early warning systems. That is easier said than done. The current drought arrived at a speed and without a confident warning from the scientific community. And, secondly, it must diversify its water supply and become less reliant on surface water supplies.

Early warning systems are not enough

Early warning signs of a pending drought in 2017 were not clear or loud enough to prompt timely actions. As a result, the city was caught relatively unaware. Perhaps the success of the water demand programme created a false sense of security.

Citizens, businesses, officials and politicians responded slowly to early warnings about potential shortages. This is for a number of reasons. Water is taken for granted; there are too many confusing messages about how to manage water; and there is general apathy to adapt to water scarcity because it doesn’t seem to be a priority until it’s in short supply.

Lessons from the 1996 to mid-2010 Australian Millennial Drought show that threat of drought was clearly understood following several severe droughts. Despite the experience, central government was only able to act once the risk became extreme. But then it acted swiftly, investing heavily in new technologies and infrastructure.

This meant substantial increases in the unit cost of water. But Australians understood, and accepted them.

Australians also learnt that there are no quick fixes. They are still working on new interventions and education 10 years after the drought ended.

The City of Cape Town is following a similar trend by investigating new technologies. But these will take time to implement and deliver water in sufficient volume to rescue the city from disaster. In the meantime, saving water is the only game in town in the hope that it will buy the city sufficient time until the next winter rainfall in 2018.

What should be done?

Drivers of water resources are like the cogs in a mechanical system. They turn slowly – some more so than others. Often they fail to attract political will or financial attention because water management is competing with other priorities and demands.

The immediate imperative is to ensure that Cape Town has sufficient water to serve 4m people with a collective demand of at least 500m litres per day. It will involve significant investment in alternative water supplies like stormwater, groundwater, seawater or treated wastewater for non-potable use.

But investment to alleviate the crisis must be carefully managed. Emergency spending can restart further crises which in turn could lead to installing new technologies that can’t be used because they are inappropriate or not affordable.

The long term plans need to focus on “climate proofing” the city to ensure that it becomes a water sensitive city. These plans should include treating the city as a catchment where water is collected naturally. Water should be captured and stored in rain tanks, detention ponds, in recharged groundwater and floodplains.

Plans should also include bringing new life to the city’s waterways and regenerating natural systems. This is about rethinking the value of springs, rivers and streams. These blue and green corridors are water sources as well as valuable in reducing urban temperatures.

The city must ensure it has proper plans in place that anticipate future events, such as prolonged changes in weather patterns, so that it can respond quickly. This must include being able to unlock investments and establishing private and government partnerships.

The ConversationIn addition, this drought is setting the conditions for the “new normal” in which citizens will need to become skilled at adapting to a sustainable threshold of water use.

Kevin Winter, Senior Lecturer in Environmental & Geographical Science, University of Cape Town.

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