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.
I felt a lot like I did when I wrote this 18 months ago about Walsall.
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 :-(.
Bereaved is an entirely appropriate word. Maybe it is only nostalgia but I feel there are parts of my past that now can only be revisited in my mind. This applies to Brownhills, Walsall and Birmingham. The physical evidence of them is now gone, and I do feel the loss.
Thanks. I’m glad it’s not just me. I have a tendency to over-analyse myself, and in the grand scheme and overall shadow of current events, it seems silly. But it is a sort of loss, a feeling of being bereft.
It’s like walking into the kitchen and finding it’s not there anymore.
Isn’t this what people have said about Birmingham for decades? Constant change – less evolution than revolution? What it does show, in contrast to Brownhills, is that people want to invest in the future of the city. New architecture is never to anyone’s taste, even Wren’s replacement for St Paul’s back in the 1670s was considered controversial, but in thirty years’ time when the new library or John Lewis or Selfridges are replaced people will mourn their passing, even some of the people who are unimpressed today!
Yes Bob I totally agree
I probably go into Birmingham once a year mainly due to dislike of crowds and shopping plus mobility issues
Went in for a brief visit this week and was gutted at the mess they have made of the station
Why and what has it gained?
Zero gain for train users – still only two tracks in and out so no change in the delays especially the cross city line
My gran was a true Brummie bon in 1909
Birmingham city centre was her life until she became too old but most of Birmingham was still recognisable in the 1970’s just before she stopped going because of ill health
I could imagine her bursting out in tears if she saw this dreadful mess
Thank you for your brilliant analysis of this shocking sad story
As I have not been in the area for some time the picture with the escalator fascinated me.
At first look I thought I was going down, and the concentric circular structures were below me. Something is wrong. Ah yes the circles are above.
But it looks like a steep descent, am I coming upwards?
You are indeed. It’s an oddly disconcerting interaction of spaces and one of the reasons I’m not keen on the new Library – it seems to break a lot of rules about angle, proportion and freespace that to me, make it feel distorted and uncomfortable.
But lots of people like it, and that’s fine by me.
Nicely written, indeed the city is changing and as it does so it will leave many behind, just as many have left it before, to move to London, Cape Town, Perth, etc. When my children grow old they might mourn the passing of Grand Central in the same way. It’s part of the privilege of reaching an old age. I am constantly bewildered at those that want stasis, for the old to persist forever. It seems to me to be attached to a hopeless belief that it will prolong their own life, it nothing changes neither will they.
As you say the excavators are in Paradise Circus. And nobody with any objectivity could really be sorry to see it go. It was a part of its time, a time now past. In 5 years it will all look different, and if we’re lucky we will be here to applaud/decry it !
I mourn the loss, but know it has to go. I feel attached, as my memories are attached. I’m not selfish enough to want no change to preserve my youth in a mausoleum of a city I effectively left years ago.
But I still struggle with my sentiments. I guess I’m trying to flush it through my system.
Well said Chris. Too many alarmists out there.
I don’t go into Brum much nowadays, it’s heartbreaking how they have torn the heart right out of the city. I remember the old bullring the old bomb I sat on in the fish market, oh the times they are a changing and there is nothing we can do but mourn. Sad but …. Onwards and upwards …. Or something like that, compare the old to the new … You must be joking. Birmingham has some of the most beautiful facades you will ever see, architecture is not architecture today, just urban, bland, square, boring, bright, a nothingness and is not comparable to times gon past. You only have to compare the beautiful Victorian houses of yesteryear to today’s boxes, nuff said?
excellent thought – provoking article. So its Brave New Brum, mark 2.then. I remember the voices of the experts some fifty years ago for mark 1. What will people think of this latest development in fifty years time? A steel clad building, seemingly with the profile of a gents urinal. Amazing.
But that’s my point. Some architecture is good, some bad. I love buildings I have a feeling you’d hate. That’s OK for both of us.
What I don’t really get to be honest is that people don’t seem to see the temporal nature of lots of buildings. In a changing world, you can’t really build for today in say, retail or hospitals and expect that building to still be suitable in 5 decades because the requirements of the purpose change so fast.
I love Selfridges, and Bullring. I liked, in retrospect, many aspects of the old Bullring. Manzoni Gardens were a brave attempt at a garden in a city. The walkways and spirals were bold. But it wasn’t fit for life 30 years later, just as Bullring won’t be, just as 103 Colmore Row couldn’t find a use and the Madin library fell foul of obsolescence.
The process is right and natural. But still painful to those with attachments, I guess
Thanks, Bob. I cannot claim to be familiar with the centre of Birmingham, but your powerful account of how change – esp of architecture/landscape – unsettles us really hit home.
I won’t comment on whether that is a good design or otherwise, that is very much a matter of opinion, but what does strike me is the sheer arrogance and bad manners in putting up a building of that scale and design with a complete disregard for its setting and the surrounding cityscape. Modern architecture can sit comfortably alongside existing buildings, but this example is a bad an example as you can get of the opposite. The final insult to the injury is that after all it is only a shop. The centre of Birmingham is already packed with shops and little else, especially around the New Street area, do we even need something like this?
Sadly, the local planning authorities have little say in whether to allow developments like this. In city centres, national policy is to encourage competition on the basis that this gives consumers more choice and competitive pricing. It is almost impossible for the authorities to turn down planning applications on the basis of design, other than on functional matters, so aesthetics are at the mercy of architects and their clients’ instructions. And what local councillor is going to say no to such investment and employment from one of the big names of retailing?
As ever, Andy is bang on the money here.
I’d love to write a piece about planning, urban design and the economic politics of the urban town centre.
I’d love to communicate within it that planning doesn’t work how many people think it does. Councils have surprisingly little power to change or deny planning applications. That if Councils refuse an application and that refusal is overturned on appeal, that said council faces massive punitive costs.
I’d really like to point out that, contrary to popular belief, Councils and ‘town planners’ are not responsible for the design or development of many city centres, which consist largely of a mosaic of discrete, private developments.That private money, companies and interests with money push development forward. Councils may hitch on the coat tails, or facilitate, but without developers, little changes.
I’d also posit in this post that people are generally unaware of just how much of the public realm in urban centres is not owned or managed by Local Authorities. Walsall, for instance, contains very little retail space operated by the council. While it controls streets and the market, the arcade, Saddlers Centre and other malls are all privately controlled and maintained. Like Ravens Court in Brownhills, in fact.
I’d also cite a condensation of my opinions above and in the original post; we don’t generally wantonly destroy stuff, but social mores are such that a decision taken 20 years ago can be incomprehensible, because the context is lost and alien to us. The same will be as true today as it was then.
I’d like to write all this stuff, but I don’t possess the required knowledge or expertise.
Good luck with that one – are you up for a Nobel Prize?!
I’d need expert help 😉
This would be getting into a level of complexity that I have not visited, thankfully.
Lovely written article, I have to say that I only tend to visit once a year, hate driving there and if I go on the train I just want to get on the next train back! From a shopping experience what gets me these days is that there’s nothing to differentiate between places, they all have the same retailers so anything that makes one place stand out from another in terms of character wins me over, Birmingham just doesn’t do it for me, sorry.
Thanks for the contributions people – always welcome.
As I’ve said, I’m not resistant to change, but as I get older, and however hard I resist, change is like sand in the vaseline.
I’m trying to fight it. Change must come, and it’s what Brum has always done well. If you don’t click any other link in the above post, click and read the one for the Danny Smith post. He puts that beautifully.
A while ago, as part of a photography course, I produced a few “than and now” pics, taking scans of a photo I’d take of, say, a trolleybus in Bloxwich High St and trying to reproduce it as closely as possible with a modern bus at the same point. One pic I looked at was taken precisely at 8.20 a.m. on 3 October 1970, the clock tower of Brum museum and art gallery being in shot. It soars above a building site, where Brum had pulled down a fine building of unfashionable date to replace it with a brand new state-of-the-art library. I couldn’t reproduce that pic, but I’ll be able to do when they get far enough into pulling down a fine building of unfashionable date….