This is an odd one I can’t fit in anywhere else, so people who aren’t in to my architecture obsession may want to tune out now – but I will alert readers to something: almost unnoticed, to people over the age of around 35, the Birmingham we knew is gradually being erased – if you want to see it one last time, go soon.
On Friday, I was in Birmingham for the afternoon, and had time to visit Grand Central, the botched temple to Mammon grafted badly on top of New Street Station, and also the older parts of the city around Paradise Circus that I lamented the loss of last spring.
You can read my love letter to Brutalist architecture and specifically, John Madin’s wonderful work here. That article is flawed, but I stand by it. Some people got what I was saying. Some didn’t. I never expected anything less.
One of the weirdest things about Grand Central – occupying the space and same shell as the old Palisades – is that there’s a persistent, nagging smell: that of design and engineering compromise. I was lost in a new, uncharted territory, clean, white and brightly lit. Then, I’d spot a familiar doorway, or odd linkage structure that couldn’t be removed, that was visible in the Palisades, and all of a sudden I was located. 20 years ago.
The way the old ramp along Stephenson Place has barely changed is peculiarly disconcerting. Akin to finding one leg is wooden on that champion greyhound you just bought in a pub – Holland and Barratt hasn’t moved or changed at all; almost like it reappeared in Grand Central by way of a small, health food and homeopathy powered time machine.
Wandering around Brum on the first full day of the German Christmas Market was an oddly ethereal experience. The market, being fresh, had little atmosphere. It’s broken in two now, due to the closure of Paradise Forum and Chamberlain Square. Now you have to take a diversion to the side of the Town Hall and under what was Fletcher’s Walk – now a dystopian, white-painted subway cleared of any evidence that it was once a parade of shops – and then up steps onto the Paradise Forum linkway.
Getting back to Centenary Square, the non-German bit of the market wasn’t yet functional (it seems as ever, that the Germans were quickest to the best spots), and overshadowed by the hulk of the old library being torn apart, it feels most peculiar.
The whole Christmas Market experience was like two sessions of browsing say, eBay or Etsy with a game of Doom in the middle.
I explored the site from the periphery, getting to bits I could around the Conservatoire. I went up in the new Library of Birmingham. I had a damn good mooch. Paradise Forum has excavators trundling through it, demolition machines tearing out metal. The old library is being stripped piece by piece. There aren’t a huge number of workers visible. But those there are have serious intent.
It was a fine afternoon, which I enjoyed. But with the new tram lines nearly complete, a new retail centre in full swing, and the twin demolitions of both 103 Colmore Row and the old Library, it’s hard not to feel the Birmingham I knew has escaped me.
Birmingham is doing what it always has – changing. It’s not taking me with it – that’s OK. But I feel oddly bereaved, as if the solid things that contained my memories are being smashed to rubble. These buildings and places were not beautiful, or even in some cases functional, but they were of my past.
Danny Smith felt the same when he wrote his Requiem for a Piss-stained Shortcut on the wonderful Paradise Circus blog (the comments on that are great, too.)
I guess this is what aging feels like :-(.