Because it seemed right at the time…


Great Charles Street, Birmingham. Beneath this urban jungle landscape still cries to be noticed – from the hillside Victorian terraces to the fall to the west. One of the biggest architectural drivers here was not the car, or modernism, but the cold war – a bunker from which sprawls under these highways.

Just lately, I’ve found myself in lots of intense discussions – several on social media – about architecture, old buildings, history and the way we view the past; these discussions often sadden me and I need to get something off my chest.

I’m a person who, as many people will have spotted from my 365days journal and through my work here, has a great deal of passion about lots of things. Nature, engineering, history, society, ingenuity, shared memory. I’ve often been compared by people who know me to the character ‘Brilliant!’ from the Fast Show, because when something energises me, I become animated, and want to know all about it.

More than a passing similarity.

I’m like that with architecture, urban design and buildings. Although I guess I’m an amateur historian, I’m not in love with the past. Part of the reason I put the work in to the blog is to try and get a discussed, open view of our common history free of too much nostalgia, rose-tint and mawk. The past had plenty of nice things to commend it, but I don’t believe in the ‘good old days’, as I believe time, and human memory, to be a filter.

Many of the discussions I’ve been involved in of late have involved discussing how modern architecture is rubbish, or how foolish faceless ‘Councils’ or ‘Planners’ were in allowing some building to be lost.

On Saturday, I wrote a sentimental and probably ambiguous piece on  my 365days journal  about a lost shopping mall in Birmingham called Fletchers Walk, which is a sort of subway, soon to be razed, between the Town Hall and Broad Street in Birmingham. From mail and messages I received, it seems my views caused some surprise. You can read the piece here.

I’m going to explain my views. I don’t expect people to necessarily agree, but I hope they kind of indicate how I see the built environment, and history, in general.


As urban spaces go, Fletchers Walk is pretty terrible. But I still love it, because of the memories it contains for me.

I believe a fair bit of architecture in any given period is rubbish, a further portion merely adequate, and a tiny amount to be outstanding.

The only reason we have this impression today that the Victorians were great architects who built consistently brilliant buildings is because, after a century or more, all the stuff with no merit has long been forgotten, demolished or fallen down.

There, I said it.

Much great architecture has indeed been lost, though – a huge amount in the 1920s and 30s, to buildings we now also consider great. The long-lamented George Hotel in Walsall that many people hanker after replaced an older George Hotel in this period. Enemy bombs, slum clearance and road systems – then the housing shortages and boom years up until the 1980s put paid to many, many more. Thrown up with what seems like indecent, hubristic haste, sweeping all before them. But is that really the case?


This George Hotel – the one recalled fondly by most living Walsallians – is an imposter, built in the 1930s. Image from The Story Of Walsall.

I think we have to judge decisions in the context of the time at which they were made. In the interwar, it was a brave new world, and the local history awareness we have today was an alien concept, and so it remained, until relatively recently. The tower blocks and modernist designs – many that failed, just as badly as Victorian slums and wartime prefabs – were erected in a brave spirit and genuine faith that this was the modern world. There was no nostalgic defence of old buildings like those swept away in the 60s in Birmingham. There couldn’t have been: we needed the houses, the economic expansion. Society was doing what it always has and will: moving on.

I value old buildings and their history. I think everything needs recording. I have a huge regard for Victorian and latterly Art Deco architecture but also, perhaps surprisingly, for much Modernist and Brutalist stuff from the 1960s and 70s, even though most of it failed. It was brave: new engineers, new techniques, new materials. The envelope was being pushed.


Trellick Tower in London, now gentrified, is one of Brutalism’s icons and greatest hits. I do love it. But I doubt you could describe it as beautiful. Image from ‘London from the Rooftops’.

The science of urban planning failed hard in subsequent decades. We had to learn the lessons we learned so harshly. A lot of the buildings were rubbish. Just like the Victorian back to backs, cleared in the 30s.

We have learned. And continue to do so.

I recorded the passing of Fletchers Walk because it was remarkable, and I like the brave design principles it tried – and failed – to encompass. I like John Madin, and his brutalist Birmingham Central Library, which pales compared to his (far superior in my opinion) 103 Colmore Row – the former Natwest Tower, a tour de force of concrete, glass and brick.

I think many examples of Brutalism as John Madin espoused should be saved. I know that they won’t be. I’d like to see 103 Colmore Row saved. It’s death warrant was signed in 2008 – and I accept that it will be another lost building in the urban chess game that ebbs and flows over the city.


Marin’s finest hour: Harsh, geometric, solid. A priapic monument to the financial sector. 103 Colmore Row will soon be demolished.

To us all, everything was better years ago. I recently saw a 1910 image of Brownhills posted on Facebook. One comment said how beautiful it was, and how they’d love the town to be like that now. I wanted to point out that yes, it looked postcard-lovely, but the poverty, the illness, the living conditions. People were dirt-poor, living with inadequate sanitation, high infant mortality and malnutrition. I wanted to point out the jolly lads on the corner would soon be in the trenches of Northern France, and those that survived would come back to a murderous Spanish flu outbreak. And on.

I might as well have been talking to the taxman about poetry.

I cannot, and will not accept a rose-tinted view of the past. Yes, some things may well have been better, but an equal number were worse. It’s a natural part of the human condition that the golden age of everything is when were young. Endless summers, great community, no crime. Yet my forays back into the archives have always left a distinctly different impression.

Human society, like individuals, does things because they seem like a good idea at the time. We lose historic buildings not usually out of malice or carelessness, but out of the desire to push things forward, to move on. If we did not, we’d end up living in a mausoleum. It’s easy to point and say we were fools, or misguided, but hindsight is a fantastic mistress.

Unless we can repurpose old buildings, keeping them empty is madness. People who insist architecture should be kept at any price: how do you live in a place full of empty, un-repurposable structures? At some point, there has to be compromise, or we stagnate.


Urban compromise is the way we’ve always moved on.

There are recent buildings I loathe (I so dislike the new Brum Library). There are old, historic buildings I similarly loathe (Shenstone Church). There are old buildings I adore (just search 365days for ‘Darlaston’) and similarly, new ones (The Wesleyan in Brum, the Shard in London, Selfridges, in Brum). I can take stuff from any period you name I both love, and hate. Because it’s personal. But it’s also about everything we build, make and technologically achieve.

I don’t regard say, John Wyatt or Oldrid Scott, the noted Victorian Ecclesiastical architects as being any better, or worse than John Madin, Basil Spence or Norman Foster. All designers of their day, working within the aesthetic mores and technical horizons they have. If Wyatt was alive today, he’d be working in steel, and glass, just like his modern counterparts.

I’ve found myself in Birmingham with time on my hands more than a little lately, and started to enjoy the place again. On Friday, I specifically looked at Brum’s architecture; it’s relationship with people, and the nature of change. Birmingham has never been slow to change. Change is what the city does best; and some stuff has changed for better, some worse, but it wears the remnants like a crown, and I know no other place that does.

That’s why I love it.

Go on: tell me I’m wrong. Comment here, or mail: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com

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26 Responses to Because it seemed right at the time…

  1. stymaster says:

    I love this image, very similar viewpoint to one of yours above, just a few feet lower- presumably no footbridge…

    Agree with much of what you say: some great Victorian buildings flattened in the 30s, then some great 30s buildings flattened in the 60s, and now we’re flattening some fine 60s stuff- some of it admittedly ugly, but of it’s time and interesting.

    Have to say though, I love the “imposter” George Hotel, didn’t care much for the old one (from photos, of course), and don’t care much for what is there now.

  2. Bill Breakwell says:

    Bob as a 15yr old In 1960 my first job as a porter I worked at the George Hotel and although at the time it was only 30 years old it had an aura of a bygone age about it.The marble steps up to
    impressive revolving door, inside to the left the head porters desk and cloakroom,one of my tasks to take the guests in the lift , me carrying their cases open the door to their room hand them the key and in most cases the tip usually half a crown,and with a wage of £5.00 a week and also living in all found one of the best times of my life.Just seeing the photo tonight has bought many memories back of that time.

  3. For some obscure reason I really liked the old brutalist library in Brum but I like the new one even more. On the whole I dislike brutalist 60s stuff and boring horrible shapeless senseless 70s nonsense too, such as the shopping centre in Aldridge. The other thing is those concrete towers and houses of the 60s and 70s were every bit as bad to live in as the Victorian back to backs, condensation running down the walls, black mould every where.
    I agree the past was hard living for most and I’m personally glad I didn’t live the lives that some of my ancestors had but as with everything from our own past we tend to remember the good above the bad, just like the words of that song, which is where the rose tinted specs come from.
    Planners and architects have a job to do but one consideration that seems to be forgotten is that modern does not necessarily mean good and more consideration needs to be given as to how a ‘new’ building fits in to the existing environment..
    We are though all individuals with our own taste in architecture, colour and design. It’s personal so we’re always going to disagree.

    • Hi Linda

      You’ve not said anything I’d particularly disagree with, except I intensely dislike the new Library. It’s competent, accomplished, but bland, to me.

      I dislike those shopping centres too; but that’s my point – 95% of anything is mediocre at best. The tower blocks were awful to live in, I agree, but I contend the lesson they taught us was important. Oddly, the fiercest advocates for those places never seemed to have had to live in them.

      I think on the whole we’re getting better at the urban blend thing, but neither of us is getting younger and my grump does get it on with a lot of stuff, much as I try not to let it. That bloody hotel at the Wharf drives me nuts.


  4. Pedro says:

    “Birmingham has never been slow to change.”

    Is there anywhere else like B’ham that has gone through such change in a lifetime?

    From rebuilding post WWII, construction of the 60s, then all ripped down and built again.

  5. Mike Hawes says:

    What should be worrying is the missed opportunity Birmingham had to rejuvinate the edge of the inner city on the jewellery quarter, Buildings our family business owned in the 80’s are still derelict after we sold them in the early 90’s, it was part of a large redevelopment area but council pettiness – the requirement for bizzare *work to let units* sort of 30’s style garrets where humble artisans work then live in the same place meant it was never developed. They wanted shops too even though the developers rightly said who is going to open a shop there? . It should have been apartments but instead now it’s just derelict over grown building – right in the B1 city centre.

  6. beckyt2015 says:

    Interesting points. There are most definitely good and bad buildings in all eras and its very much personal taste. One can also admire the Engineering feat but not necessarily like the building aesthetically

    Even the back to back Victorian houses were new once and an outside flushing loo was a big improvement over no loo at all.

    Planning and how it affects areas is as you have said to me, is what happens in a free market economy, the planners are limited in their powers whether that’s a good thing or not is another discussion.

    You are right you can’t go back and we can’t preserve the past just for the sake of it. Brownhills High street is highly unlikely to be revitalised to it’s former self so the building of more housing intermingled with a few shops seems to be the only way forward. I’ve never really liked 60/70’s shopping precincts they are just seem a bit drab and depressing to me, although I”m sure they seemed a good idea at the time. I’m in agreement with Linda on 60/70’s buildings.

    I dislike the new care home in Aldridge because it is well ugly primarily because of the steel bits and does not look like a “home” and looks more like a prison. No doubt it is functional. But then the shopping precinct and blocks of flats with flat roofs from an earlier time don’t blend with the village green either.

    Art is similar the 60’s had bright and vibrant “modern art” of its time and very semetrical. Not to everyone’s taste. Yet its all very popular again now. Fashions and styles come and go and what was once seen as dated is now fashionable again. Some of the new buildings of flats like the waterfront ones in Walsall and in Brownhills don’t appeal to me primarily because of the roofs which make them look like sheds. However that is the current “modern” look or style.

  7. Andy Dennis says:

    What is built, why, where and when it is built, is mainly down to demand in the markets. There are some examples of the aesthetic overriding in part the profit imperative, for example medieval cathedrals and some public and private buildings, for example royal palaces, libraries and museums, town halls, concert halls, Stonehenge, even, but these are exceptions.

    The overwhelming majority of development in any era of history is a response to a demand for labour, together with infrastructure (transport, shops, parks, schools, police stations and so on) and mostly are safe. There have only ever been a small number of architects or engineers who have designed and had built exceptional buildings or fashions – They are famous or infamous because of that: Charles Rennie Macintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lord Rogers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Chrostopher Wren, Mies van der Rohe, Jorn Utzon, Oscar Niemayer, Le Corbusier, Larsen Nielsen, to name a few.

    Linda laments the seeming inability of architects and planners to ensure that developments fit into the existing environment and this has always been a key element of planning law and policy in the UK. In my thirty years or so working in a planning department and with people from other authorities around the Midlands, together with noticing developments that I pass by, I can recall just one planning application that was successfully refused solely on the grounds that the design was unsatisfactory (there may have been others is special areas, such as National Parks or Conservation areas, but rarely in an otherwise ordinary urban setting). Design has been used as a reason for refusal many times, but rarely alone. Often the design reason, because it is so subjective, is the first casualty in the event of appeal, so local authorities and government inspectors are unwilling to take the risk in all but the most blatant cases.

    Recently, there have been some more innovative designs in major cities, for example the Shard, the Gherkin, Burj Khalifa, Selfridges (Birmingham), Changi Airport, but these are still controlled by financial considerations, such as builders’ and developers’ profit and pressure in public finances. Generally speaking, though, developers and shareholders want to minimise risk and maximise profit. These are mutually antagonistic, so, not being able to have their cake and eat it too, a compromise is reached that gives a functional-if-bland product and an acceptable financial return. Planning law and practice and the building regulations do contribute to this general mediocrity, but until it becomes the norm for the development and financial sectors to take risks this will continue. And this applies to shops, offices, and factories, too. The one exception is public buildings, where some leadership can be taken, but do you want the Council or Government to take extravagant risks with your taxes?

    When people criticise modern housing estates as the slums of the future, they forget, as Bob points out) that the slums of the past were truly dreadful; uninhabitable by today’s standards. Excepting the ill-fated high rise experiments (did you spot the architect above?), they were built in the absence of any control other than the courts, to which ordinary folk had no realistic recourse, so the average miner, mill worker, platelayer, riveter and farm hand put up with what they could get. And, let’s be honest, we still do that today. If you occupy a house built in the last twenty years it will probably have some minor imperfections, but it will stand up, keep the weather out, have modern infrastructure connections and be where the emergency services can get to it. It may be just like a million others, but, as I say, until risk is normal it will continue. We have seen what over-exposure to risk can do to the economics of the housing market …

  8. stuart says:

    Smashing article as ever and a topic that very often comes up with family and friends from time to time, my eldest daughter in Manchester is starting to notice some of the old buildings in the city near where she works and I always bring up the time lapse photograph of Birmingham that is on one of your previous blogs people find it fascinating to see. Just for the record one of the best places I’ve worked in was at the New Britannic Assurance offices in Wythall just south of Birmingham you could be 100yards away from it and not spot it yet it was a huge complex. The previous head office was turned in to apartments so I suppose that’s a good example of change of use.

  9. Alan H says:

    I recently did a project for a photography class in which I retook old pics from the period 1967-70ish. Among the pics was one taken precisely at 8.20 a.m. on Sat 3 October 1970. The B’ham Museum and Art Gallery clock is visible above a building site. I haven’t yet been able to retake it because, for the time being, the completed building is in the way. It is, of course, Madin’s library. Brum had unnecessarily knocked down a fine building of unfashionable date. Now it’s doing the same again….

  10. Andy Dennis says:

    Here’s a project for someone more technically advanced than me. True, you can’t recreate the past (Jurassic Park excepted!), but you can preserve the present. 3D imagery is an available technology that can at least preserve the opportunity to walk, bicycle, drive or fly through a townscape. Google Earth already allows you to travel vicariously through foreign lands (or discover answers to local quiz questions by some sadist), but it must be possible to do this in 3D. Maybe not on the same scale, but when a building is to be demolished its 3D images could be preserved for posterity. As I understand it, the French planning system has required for at least twenty years that planning applications include photographs of what is present and related images of the proposed future. In effect the system in England and Wales has caught up with the planning statement. Why not extend this to 3D imagery that allows people to move through actual and proposed townscapes and landscapes? The technology exists. If Parliament required this by (say) 2019 (within the life of a Parliament) the technology would advance and become widely available at an affordable price. You could get some sense of this on your phone or Wii, or whatever, but maybe in the future you could go to your local facility (library?) and see what proposed developments would be like and “walk through them”. Maybe it would overcome fear of the unknown. Maybe it would do away with the NIMBY – okay, okay …

    Once upon a time Dad and I met up in London. There was an exhibition of laser technology. There were lasers running the length of Oxford Street, which was something in itself, but two memories:
    1. We got caught in a people jam – some author wrote about that – ice rink at Tottenham Court Road. There was a fear of falling, but there was no room to fall.
    2. In the Royal Academy was a room with one exhibit. Visitors were kept to the outside with those brass stands and sagging ropes. The exhibit was a human skull that floated about waist high. The weird thing was that it looked at you. Not just from one angle, but from all angles. Tiptoe, crouching, move left or right. Everyone in the room saw exactly the same image. If that was available then, why not now?
    This was in 1979!

    • Brief reply, but laser scanning in 3D is a widely used thing now. The major problem is ‘rebuilding’ it into media for interpretation outside of technical usages, but I’m convinced virtual reality will get to grips with it in time.

      Laser scanners can be used to create computer models – very precise ones – of anything from small plastic components, to the human mouth, to underground voids like old mines, sewers and places humans cannot go, like dangerous structures. Police are currently speeding up accident clean-ups and measurement using laser scanners to record vehicle positions so they reconstruct accident sites.

      I’m sure it’s coming; my interest would surely be recording stuff like 103, Colmore Row before it’s lost.

      Cheers all for the replies, awakes a pleasure – I am convinced, however, that one or two of you didn’t actually read what I wrote!


      • Pedro says:

        Hi Bob

        I have lived through the building of the Bull Ring, worked in the City for about 35 years, an played there for a deal longer. It has now undergone another huge change.

        Even for people on the outskirts it was a central place to meet and get your entertainment. At those times I was part of the environment, and I influenced by it.

        I was on the inside looking out, now I feel that I am on the outside looking in.

    • stymaster says:

      Someone has had at attempt at a Victorian Asylum.

  11. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    a thought provoking article. I wonder how todays contemporary buildings will be judged in fifty or a hundred years time
    kind regards

  12. Pedro says:

    Room for a little ‘un

    HSBC headquarters to relocate from London to Birmingham…

    Arena Central will be built on a 1.5m sq ft (139,366 sq m) site occupied by the Alpha Tower and the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

    Antonio Simoes, of HSBC, described Birmingham as a “growing city” with the “expertise and infrastructure” to support the bank.

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