In Birmingham, England, there’s a fight afoot to save some of the city’s most striking buildings from the wrecker’s hammer. The buildings’ defenders insist that current redevelopment plans are threatening a vital part of the U.K. city’s architectural heritage. This group may well be right (and their concern familiar from elsewhere), but the places they’re defending aren’t the most obvious pawns in a struggle over historic preservation.
None of the structures in question pre-date 1960, and all of them heavily feature concrete, that most reviled of building materials. That’s because Birmingham is the latest battleground in the worldwide debate over what is currently the 20th century’s most contested architectural style—Brutalism.
The Brutiful Birmingham Action Group (see what they did there?) is fighting an uphill struggle to preserve the city’s best examples of 1950s and ’60s concrete and glass minimalism. At present Birmingham still has a good number of these. Thanks to a severe pounding by the Luftwaffe, much of the historic fabric of this major industrial city was lost during World War II. This wanton destruction at least gave the city a clean slate that in some cases turned out to be a backhanded advantage. In the 1950s and ‘60s, areas of squalid, meanly constructed back-to-back row houses were replaced with modernist housing projects that offered far better living conditions.
Still, the new construction wasn’t all gold. Central Birmingham was scarred with pro-car planning in the post-war period, throttling the city core with a segregated highway-like beltway sometimes referred to as the “Concrete Collar.” Around this new asphalt noose rose a few buildings that were textbook examples of why Brutalism is still controversial. Birmingham’s New Street Station was a dystopian cavern that looked like it was built for mole people to huddle in after some cataclysm. The city’s Bull Ring Shopping Centre, by contrast, was considered a model mall in its time, but high rents and low footfall eventually turned its slowly emptying units into a smile where gaps risked outnumbering actual teeth.
Not many tears where shed when these innovations starting losing ground in the late 1980s. Traffic was diverted from the inner beltway; underpasses were replaced with pedestrian crosswalks. In the place of concrete quadrilaterals, Birmingham started to be graced by the odd eye-catching postmodern blob.
But when Birmingham shed some of its post-war chaff, it lost some real plump grains of wheat in the process. Many people mourn the elegant, interesting upside-down ziggurat of Birmingham Central Library, designed in the late 1960s by John Madin. English Heritage, the national conversation body, tried to list it twice as a historical monument. But Birmingham City Council hated it so much that they overruled them, having it demolished in 2015 in one of the worst architectural crimes in recent British history. Now Birmingham’s Brutalism lovers want to step in before anything else of value is lost.
The structures they want to protect are numerous. They include the Ringway Centre, an office and retail building whose delicate curve and textured surfaces echo examples of British 19th-century grand planning, such as Newcastle’s Grainger Town or London’s Regent Street. Other key sites are the understated Chamber of Commerce House, also designed by John Madin, and a wall beneath a flyover crusted with sculptures by William Mitchell, who later produced work in Honolulu and on San Francisco’s BART.
Many modernism skeptics would greet the idea of preserving these with a shrug—even with its marble insets, slabs like Chamber of Commerce House are still new enough and common enough throughout the world’s cities; they lack the shine granted by rarity or great age. There is nonetheless a strong argument that this is some of the best architecture Birmingham possesses. As the architect Joe Holyoke wrote in the Birmingham Post newspaper, there’s a lightness to these buildings’ construction that belies assumptions about Brutalism’s overbearing heft:
“[The Ringway Centre] building is a grand and elegant urban gesture. Its curvature on plan and sweeping horizontal lines, its rhythm of vertical fins, together with its characteristic projecting concrete uplighters, make it still the most impressive piece of modern streetscape in the city, even 54 years after its completion.”
The idea of sweeping away such structures grates more when you realize that, rather than being entirely demolished, the Ringway Center will be merely part-destroyed, leaving the rest to be skinned and re-clad in more contemporary glass (as in the rendering accompanying this article), so that roomier, more easily-rentable office space can be created within. Given that the building has been granted immunity for listing as a historic monument, its future is already hanging by a thread.
These buildings are still important for Birmingham, even if their local popularity isn’t yet fully entrenched. The U.K.’s second city has always produced far more culture and thought than it’s usually given credit for, but any architectural mementoes of that history have tended to be lost to bombing or planners’ indifference. Birmingham’s Brutalist buildings testify to the optimism of post-war Britain, where a fairer, cleaner, more modern society was being built on the ashes. Right now, we need reminders of that optimism more than ever.