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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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