"...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
6 December 2016
Dear Cllr Clancy,
'Birmingham’s 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 Birmingham’s 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/70’s 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 ‘mindset’ that we should complete the ‘cleansing’ that 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 Birmingham’s 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.