The Money Baggers, Dennis Barker on the Midlands, 1965

The Midlands is rich, brutal and lonely. Few ideas men go into the place, and few ideas come out. Products come out, and people who can produce products go in. The area is full of immigrants, most of them white. They are not especially happy there, and do not expect to be. The money is good. In due course they will retire to Bournemouth or Hastings. In the meantime, they keep their noses down and drive to Rhyl as often as they can in a car rather better than they would be using if they actually lived there. They see no illogicality in this. They know the language of production, not of happiness. If the tone of the Midlands can be grating and sour when it is not simply sterile, the Midlander (born and bread) tends to be mercifully tone deaf.

They know the language of production, not of happiness.
Guardian journalist for the Midlands Dennis Barker who died in 2015 (image: the Guardian)

Guardian journalist for the Midlands Dennis Barker who died in 2015 (image: the Guardian)

 

 

This is not to condemn the Midlander. The Midlands, after all, is not there to be enjoyed. It is a factory; a factory in which the processes and observances have assumed the intensity, the solemnity and (yes, sometimes) the bigotry of religious dogma and ritual. In the Midlands production is not an activity, to be evaluated alongside any other. Production is a religion, and work is its worship. It fills all horizons, and even now every deviation from it smacks of sin. Hence (like any other sin) organised culture is both assiduously practised and reviled.

The exceptions are the small cities and towns with history and plenty of visible oak beams; places like Lichfield. Here the olde-worldiness, among the partly completed new shopping arcades, seems to have become almost psychotic; oak panelled cafes with wobbly round tables, Styfian lighting, lamb in thick Merrie England slices, formidable contralto manageresses, and "all sauces 4d per person". Here the middle-aged now act out fading values, like gallant passé actors in a bewhiskered musical comedy.

The industrial midlands pays homage to the needs of the factory floor; but even here the worship varies in force, breadth, and intolerance.

In Nottingham, with its pleasant, airy central square, its charming Council House, and its distinctly charmless local politics, the craft tradition and a form of industrial feudalism are leaveners. In Coventry the ideal of Progress is pursued with too much essentially visionary verve (the first shopping precinct after the war; the Belgrade Theatre) to leave production entirely unchallenged as a deity. True, Birmingham has just built a temple of commerce in the Bull Ring Centre, but Birmingham also pursues culture (the new Birmingham Repertory Theatre project; the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) with what, in view of the usually "safe" nature of the programmes, could be called temperate obsessiveness.

Birmingham has just built a temple of commerce in the Bull Ring Centre, but Birmingham also pursues culture [...] with what, in view of the usually “safe” nature of the programmes, could be called temperate obsessiveness.
The Bull Ring Centre, opened by Prince Philip in 1964

The Bull Ring Centre, opened by Prince Philip in 1964

 

It is the Black Country that the religion achieves its crudest and darkest forms. The whole place is a formless and dark muddle, in spite of the Clean Air Act. Most of it looks about the same today as if did 10 years ago. It is a teaser for planners. Not all of them have fallen back defeated: West Bromwich, a place with all the cosiness of a wind tunnel in winter, has one of the most ambitious plans for central redevelopment in the whole country, and needs it no more than other Black Country towns. The whole area, in the nature of things, is rarely entered except by people who have to go there. Wolverhampton, virtually the capital of the Black Country, is still a centreless small town that contains big money and an indifferent bronze of Prince Albert. It retires to bed early not merely out of boredom or reluctance to look upon itself any longer, but also of a belief that only louts and ne'er-do-wells are abroad after 11. The belief has helped to create the reality, so that at one stage Wolverhampton bus crews considered refusing to man the last buses.

PEOPLE who have never lived in the Midlands make one great error about it. They assume it is the same as anywhere else, except that it makes products, and different products from, say, the North. But it is not the same. The people are not the same. They are tough, enduring, clannish rather than loyal, cunning rather than clever, naive rather than innocent, suspicious rather than enquiring. These are the attributes that have served them best. Their possessors seldom leave the Midlands for fresh pastures; and they are usually not too happy when they do. At home they are not fully aware of the outside world, because they have no immediate need to be; presented with it on its own terms they clam up, think they are being laughed at or bested. Their lamed capacity for unclouded enjoyment, irrelevant in their own context, makes them aware of dragging their feet elsewhere. "You can always tell the Midlanders," said the proprietor of a Blackpool hotel. "They're the ones who don't look as if they are enjoying themselves."

“You can always tell the Midlanders,” said the proprietor of a Blackpool hotel. “They’re the ones who don’t look as if they are enjoying themselves.”

But, taking him in his own context, nothing could be more naively self-congratulatory on the part of the South than to think that the Midlander resents the Londoner as the man at the centre of events. The Midlander - particularly the Brummie - simply does not regard London as the centre of events. He regards London as the talking shop, and Birmingham as the workshop, and he regards the workshop as the real centre. Objectively, in our industrial society, his point of view may be becoming increasingly true. He certainly does not regard Birmingham as a second-rate London. He simply does not compare the two on the same basis. In the main he does not know London; dislikes the feel of what little he knows; is not interested in what it has to offer (They're a smooth snobbish lot of custards down there"); is less bound by its snobberies than by his own (new Ford preferred to old Bentley, new Burton suit to worn hand-sticthed one); and is sure, without knowing what the way is, that Birmingham is probably leading it.

If our society in general is becoming more accessible to the hack, the creep, the arranger, the intriguer, and the plodder rather than to the innovator, the philosopher, the artist, and the creator, the Midlands is not the area with most to lose by the change. Except at the start of the Industrial Revolution, when inspired cranks laid the groundwork for uninspired conformity, the area has inevitably been one for sturdy cart-horses rather than temperamental racehorses.

There are few eccentrics now; only nut cases and derelicts. This axiom is less true where the craft tradition still lingers. In Leicester a man may be seen walking in a plum coloured corduroy jacket and bearing on his shoulder a cat held on a lead. Few people stare. He might also get away with it in Nottingham; he would pass quite unnoticed in Stratford upon Avon; but in Birmingham, Coventry, and Wolverhampton they would only be mollified if they could be persuaded it was really a money-making publicity stunt.

The Midlander marries earlier than anybody except the Geordie. He sinks into his home not only as a retreat but also as a status symbol. Thus, if you produce metal products in the Black Country, it is essential to have a house to your own design somewhere like Perton Ridge, a spot near Wolverhapmpton with extravagant land prices and a modest undulating view. It is essential too, that the house should incorporate floor heating, double glazing, triple garages with forecourt, rock pools of teasing complexity, and a bar built like a Tudor minstrels' gallery.

Your pretensions to social weights are unlikely to be accepted in Birmingham unless you live at Solihull, 10 miles over to the east. Solihull has the Midlands equivalent of Kent and Essex stockbroker Tudor. It was satirised in his play "Semi-detached," by David Turner, who nevertheless chose to live there at the time.

Midland householder, Fred Midway (Leonard Rossiter) lives with his family in a semi-detached house in a leafy suburb of Dowlihull. But when his carefully maintained world threatens to disintegrate about him, the scheming suburbanite will do whatever it takes to hang on to his respectable position... [source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08071rx]

Midland householder, Fred Midway (Leonard Rossiter) lives with his family in a semi-detached house in a leafy suburb of Dowlihull. But when his carefully maintained world threatens to disintegrate about him, the scheming suburbanite will do whatever it takes to hang on to his respectable position... [source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08071rx]

The path is gradually being smoothed for culture by grants, by the genuinely enlightened attitude of some local councillors, by the willingness to provide blueprints for action and bricks and mortar. Potent ideas in the arts are none the less slow to emerge, and even slower to take root. Heresies are regarded incomprehension, perhaps purposive. If the writer expresses himself unambiguously he is likely to jumped upon, accused of lack of civic pride, lack of fellow-feeling, and lack of humiliate; so that, if he is not a very steely character indeed, the trims his sails to the detriment of art. Kenneth Hill, the Birmingham playwright, was attacked, in a manner of an outsider might have regarded as plainly neurotic, for his television film which made a comparatively mild statement that Birmingham was a rather dull place. He was left murmuring sweet nothings about how much he loved the people really. The reaction of the Midlands to an original idea still tends to be that of the possessive mother urging her son to get married; she approves of girls, of course, but not this one.

The man at factory floor level is not likely to walk out of this impasse unaided; he is comfortable, if not radiant, the way he is. At Wolverhampton, a play that is not intellectual but merely intelligent will practically empty the very pleasantly modernised theatre. Coventry, Leicester, and Nottingham, with the stimulus of new theatre buildings, are building a new tradition, but it is hard going.

the Midlander still thinks that “life” is telly and bingo or the Bentley and the phoney weekend village in Wales; pleasure is something you do rather than something you feel.

At the moment, the Midlander still thinks that "life" is telly and bingo or the Bentley and the phoney weekend village in Wales; pleasure is something you do rather than something you feel. If he want to see the countryside the can drive to the Clent Hills, on the fringes of both Birmingham and the Black Country, but there is now a sort of amusement arcade even there. What is difficult for him to do is to get away from the man-made altogether and develop entirely fresh perspectives. He is doing his unconscious best to protect his own form of pietistic materialism; and with any luck he may not succeed.

 

The Money Baggers_Dennis Barker_Guardian_10/4/65

 

 

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/mar/03/dennis-barker

"tatty office blocks" or symbols of progress?

"...for many years everyone was encouraged to believe that Victorian Architecture lacked significance, both historically and culturally, and when the buildings were threatened by the cost of repairs, or a change of use, there was no-one to press for their preservation or restoration; no-one prepared to risk being out of step with convention and appreciate them for their vigour, their sense of technical and symbolic progress; they had become begrimed relics of a bygone age and a different spirit ruled, that cared for other goals."

HRH The Duke of Gloucester, Patron of the Victorian Society, from foreword to 'All About Victoria Square', 1989 (Joe Holyoak)

Replace the words "Victorian Architecture" with "Post War Architecture", and you see the same process happening now. The city is witnessing the sadly predictable cycle of (actively and passively) devaluing the old in justifying its demolition to make way for the new. The Duke of Gloucester goes on to say of the now prized Victorian architecture that "not all was lost" and I'm hopeful we can say the same of our Modernist heritage but given current ill informed attitudes and rhetoric I am increasingly concerned at the future form of the city.

Cllr. Barry Henley's recent short sighted and inflammatory remarks in the Birmingham Post called for a sentimental return to a mythical version of the city, entirely failing to recognise the civic, cultural and commercial value of our post-war architecture and urban form for which the city was celebrated and more recently is increasingly recognised. His comments are inaccurate at best, hugely damaging and divisive at worst.

This is why I, on behalf of Birmingham Modernist Society, was compelled to act as cosignatory to an open letter to Cllr Clancy, Leader of Birmingham City Council, along with Birmingham Civic Society, Twentieth Century Society, Brutiful Birmingham, Birmingham Architectural Association, RIBA West Midlands. We are calling for "an independent and considered strategy for saving the best of our post-war architecture for the benefit of our city, its people and future generations". This will necessarily involve numerous stakeholders, not least of whom Historic England who's decisions to date have been less than favourable.

The letter goes as follows;

Cllr John Clancy
Leader of the City Council
Council House
Victoria Square
Birmingham
B1 1BB
 
6 December 2016
Dear Cllr Clancy,
'Birminghams better off without its tatty 1960s Brutalist office blocks says city planner’
Birmingham Post, 28.11.16.
The Birmingham Civic Society, Twentieth Century Society, The Birmingham Modernist Society, Brutiful Birmingham, Birmingham Architectural Association, RIBA West Midlands and associated individuals are calling for a city-wide review of Birminghams post-war architecture and we believe it is the responsibility of Birmingham City Council to actively support and enable this to be carried out.
Let us work together to put in place, before all is lost, a considered approach to how we deal with the architecture created in the post-war phase of the development of our city. There needs to be a conversation with all stakeholders about Birmingham’s 1960’s/70s buildings to fully understand the significance of this period of our culture. We need to formulate an appropriate approach as to how the council, developers, architects and the broader construction industry can work with these buildings as the city goes through a period of growth.
We cannot leave our best modernist buildings without any statutory protection and at the mercy of developers or the mindsetthat we should complete the cleansingthat Cllr Barry Henley has recently suggested. We are in danger of sweeping away an important part of our built heritage - very much as Birmingham was quick to do with its Victorian buildings. We need a city that reflects, embraces and takes pride in all periods of our history.
It will be a challenge to improve the fabric of the modernist structures and to find new uses but it is possible. This was successfully achieved with the Rotunda and Alpha Tower - both Grade II listed post-war buildings that are good examples of what can be achieved. Both are still recognisable as iconic landmarks for our city but transformed with new uses and sustainable futures.
There is a growing appreciation of our modernist architecture and we cannot rely on subjective, personal opinions of decision makers to dictate that we are better off without these buildings. Furthermore, we can see how many of the buildings from this period inspire people today through numerous films, photographs and artworks created referencing Birminghams best post-war architecture.
We call upon Birmingham City Council to take action in working with us and other stakeholders in preparing an independent and considered strategy for saving the best of our post-war architecture for the benefit of our city, its people and future generations.
We look forward to hearing from you.
We the undersigned, support and endorse this letter:
 
Gavin Orton, Chairman, The Birmingham Civic Society
Anna Douglas,Chairman, Twentieth Century Society
Michael Dring, The Birmingham Modernist Society
Mary Keating, Brutiful Birmingham
Michael Duff, President, Birmingham Architectural Association
Aaron Chetwynd, Chairman, RIBA West Midlands
Harriet Devlin MBE, MA(Cantab), AMA, PGCE, DipCons(RSUA), IHBC
 
cc. Neil Elkes - The Birmingham Post

 

We wait with bated breath...join the debate, get involved, the Modernists need you.

Mike Dring @mid_mod is an architect, academic and co-founder of the Birmingham Modernist Society @modernistsocBHM, whose research is engaged in an ongoing exploration of spaces, forms and culture of the modernist project of the city. He co-leads a collaborative art and architecture project entitled the Modern Gazetteer @moderngazetteer and coproduces multi media installations the under the guise of C100.

Join the Birmingham Modernists

At last the waiting is over and the Birmingham Modernist Society is open to badge carrying members.

The Modernist Society is a creative project dedicated to celebrating and engaging with twentieth century architecture, through publishing, events, exhibitions and creative collaborations. Supporting the Society will be enable us to devise and deliver events in Birmingham and will give you the opportunity to join in. Have a look at some of the current and past walks, talks and exhibitions that the Society has delivered in Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool on The Modernist Society events page. We are working on some Birmingham events for the near future and you can keep in touch by joining our emailing list here. We've been busily researching modernist sites across Birmingham and have added many to our on line map.. have a look

Mike Dring, one of the co-ordinators of the Birmingham branch of The Modernist Society says 'The Modernist Society is particularly important in Birmingham since the city arguably embraced the modernist approach to pre and post World War II construction more wholeheartedly than any other British city and as such has, or had, a number of proto-modernist developments that are often disregarded as out of date or beyond reprieve by developers and authorities alike. Whilst the Society is not primarily a campaign group, there is a real need and desire for the past, present and future of the city to be publicly debated, and to represent this important chapter in the city’s development.'

So, why not join us? Its going to be good.

Annual Honorary Membership costs just £10.00 and is available here on our Birmingham Modernist Society Membership page..

There's also plenty going on on the Birmingham Modernist Society Facebook Page or you can follow us on Twitter  @modernistsocBHM or Instagram @modernistbrum

Paradise Circus > Paradise Lost

Commisioned 1964, Construction commenced 1969, Opened 1974, Completed (never, it's Paradise after all)

Schematic drawings for Paradise Circus by John Madin Design Group, 1965 © Birmingham and Five Counties Architectural Association Archive

Schematic drawings for Paradise Circus by John Madin Design Group, 1965

© Birmingham and Five Counties Architectural Association Archive

According to the Design Team Report of 1973, the site at Paradise Circus was the solution to a busy junction in the road pattern, its boundaries formed by the gyratory road of the Inner Ring Road, and beneath, the Queensway Tunnel. The site connects the Birmingham Corporation's Victorian assemblage to the east - the Town Hall (Hansom and Welch, 1834) and the Council House and Art Gallery (Yeoville Thomason, 1874-9, 1884-5) - and to the west the Civic Centre - the Hall of Memory (1924, Cooke) and the Civic Centre (now Baskerville House, 1939, Cecil Howitt) the only built elements of the classical plan for the site, abandoned in the 1960s in favour of a precinct arrangement. The Corporation's infrastructural 'improvements' from 1957gave rise to the island site, and the City Architect JR Sheridan-Shedden's Civic Centre Plan of 1965 designated the civic functions of the scheme, including the Reference and Lending Library, Bus Interchange, School of Music, Athletic Institute (not built), Birmingham Midland Institute (not built), municipal offices, retail and leisure, promoting grade separation and the free movement of citizens across the site.

Hickman, a director at John Madin Design Group and author of the Studio Vista guide for Birmingham, noted that the need for the new Central Library was due to the inadequate size of EM Barry's Reference Library (not featured in Hickman's book), resulting in the book stock being distributed across the city. Conceived in two main sections, the Reference Library is a square building raised above the level of Chamberlain Square originally with a large public open court beneath, the Children's Library and Quick Reference Library forming a lower block that addresses the square.

It is worth noting that in his research for the building, John Madin visited the US, dropping in on Paul Rudolph for lunch at the Yale Architecture and Arts building which Rudolph had recently completed, before leaving to start full time practice in New York. In writing to thank Rudolph for his hospitality, Madin states; "In all my travels, which have been reasonably extensive, I would say that this is one [building] which has achieved something which so many buildings lack today - character and humanity - the best building of it's kind I have ever seen."

Central Library was originally to have been clad in travertine, later Portland Stone (in accordance with the rest of the Civic Centre). According to records this was down-specified to reinforced concrete by the City Architect on grounds of cost, though Madin's references to heroic American modernist architecture and urbanism are clear.

At the time of writing, the building is still standing, just.

(source: Design Team Report, John Madin Design Group, 1973, and letter to Paul Rudolph, 1964, held at Library of Birmingham Archive, Hickman, D., Birmingham, Studio Vista Guide, 1970)

Mike Dring