Director of the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies (CURS)
I went to a very interesting event last night organised by MADE in association with Birmingham City Council, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and sponsored by Glancy Nicholls architects, No.5 Chambers and JMP. It was a celebration of 100 years of architecture as part of the ongoing events associated with the RTPI Centenary year. The RTPI was founded in 1914. MADE is an organisation dedicated to improving the quality of our towns, cities and villages. They believe in good place-making and that a high quality built environment is essential for economic prosperity and wellbeing (www.made.org.uk).
Speakers were given the job of championing the various decades of architecture in the city from the 1910’s onwards to the current day. It became evident that some decades were easier to champion than others but there was a wide variety of buildings put forward as being good examples of architecture from each period. What became clear is that there is a rich tapestry of buildings in the city ranging from the relatively modest to the rather grander iconic buildings. People were asked to vote for the best decade and it came down to a run-off between the 1930s and the 2000s in which the 1930s won with a clear margin – including illustrious buildings such as our own Barber Institute here on the campus being part of the offering from that period.
What was captured by the event was the story of the building of Birmingham and the wide variety of beautiful and interesting buildings we have in this city. The buildings on show ranged from housing with places such as the Moorpool Estate – the relatively undiscovered “garden city” in Birmingham to the prefab housing that exists on the Wake Green Road in Hall Green that have now been listed.
There were a number of important religious buildings identified including the Church of St. Matthews at Great Barr, a now grade II listed building that opened in the 1960s in the rather “brutalist” style of the day.
Key buildings and spaces reflecting the economic development of the city such as the Aston Science Park that were reflective of the city finding a new role for itself as manufacturing began to decline in the 1960s. These spaces might not be as visually attractive but constitute an important part of the backcloth of the city.
Key civic spaces such as the Hall of Memory in Centenary Square were identified both for the architectural but also symbolic value of marking the contribution of those Birmingham residents who sacrificed their lives in the World Wars.
In the same square was another important building of architectural merit – the Birmingham Repertory Theatre that has of course had a recent major renovation as part of the construction of the new library and is likely to be a celebrated building long into the future.
The Bull Ring development both old and new came in for quite a bit of coverage. The initial Bull Ring shopping centre modelled on North American shopping mall with the famous Rotunda was heavily featured and was the arrival of the now iconic Selfridges Building which has already become synonymous with Birmingham.
It was not only a story of buildings it was also a story of roads and Birmingham’s post-war legacy of the worship pf the motor-car and the building of the ring roads and the now infamous concrete collar around the city centre and how this had been broken on both the east and the west to allow the city centre to breathe.
What became so evident was the richness of the architecture in the city and how much we have to celebrate. These buildings also tell us much about how the city has developed and evolved over the years and the kind of thinking that lay behind the city building that went on. They are also a major testament to the robustness and resilience of many of the buildings as they evolved and changed over the years.
So next time you are wondering around the city – have a look at the buildings. If you are in the city centre gaze up beyond the ground floor level and marvel at the wonderful sights you might behold. Think about what your favourite building might be and why and what it tells us about the development of the city.