Birmingham Visit, July 2010

This is a Report on the Society’s visit to Birmingham on July 4th 2010. Written by John Hatton

BIRMINGHAM is a city of the good, the bad and the downright ugly. So the Civic Society’s day out in Birmingham to inspect the architecture was bound to be more challenging than most of its expeditions.

Nevertheless, 25 members were on the coach for a four and a half hour tour of its gems and eyesores, with vice-chairman Tim Mars acting as guide.

The tour started with one of the best known of Birmingham’s blunders – New Street station. Once a glory, with soaring trainsheds to welcome travellers to England’s second city, it is now little more than a cavern, in a perpetual state of Stygian gloom, with walls and roofs added as a nightmare afterthought in a 1960s British Rail “improvement.”

We did not venture into its depths.. A look at some of the signage, notably the “Pendelino Room” was enough to discourage lingering.

The Brutalist railway signal boxAs we left, Tim pointed out a garish exhibition of concrete precasting – the Brutalist station signal box (pictured, left). Brutalism, as opposed to sheer bad design has a charm, which grows on you – and unexpectedly, it did.

But we were soon in pleasant four and five storey Victorian streets, including Temple Row, on our way to St Philip’s Anglican cathedral. Birmingham is a leading Anglican and Roman catholic centre, with its former Anglican Bishop Wilson also the heroic Bishop of Changi when Singapore was occupied during the war, and the former Catholic Archbishop Nichols, now the Archbishop of Westminster, and in line for a cardinal’s hat.

Birmingham has had one cardinal already – John Henry Newman, and on the way in, the quicksighted spotted the fine Oratory building which was his home.

Bishop of Birmingham At St Philips, deacons were being ordained meaning no entry for an hour, and so it was a good place to break for lunch. The pub opposite, the Old Joint Stock is a bank conversion to die for: soaring, decorated, domed ceilings and a gallery.

The whole thing a tribute the solidity of Victorian commerce, and if there was a jarring note, it was the jarring notes as the Fullers management seem to think it a natural environment for piped pop music.

At last, St Philips was vacant, and the tourists were able to see it for what it actually is, a nondescript parish church suddenly given cathedral status when the Church of England decided in hadn’t enough bishops in the mid 19th century.

The stained glass was worth a look, though.

And then we were in the commercial, municipal, and cultural heartland. Birmingham’s connection with the Chamberlain family is well-known, but these days, the name Chamberlain is associated in 1930s appeasement of Hitler.

Our next half hour or so was a celebration of another Chamberlain – Joseph – who took on an eruption of the industrial revolution and turned it into a modern 19th century city, with public health services, public utilities, and a celebration of the city’s wealth from heavy industry, small manufacturers – and gun running.

The Council House, by Yeoville Thomason, the Town Hall, one of the finest neo-classical buildings in the country, where Mendelssohn’s Elijah had its premiere, and back in use as a concert hall again, after being eclipsed by Symphony Hall, and in contrast a spectacular new fountain.

Magnificent Ruskinian buildingAs Victoria Square ran seamlessly into Chamberlain Square, there was a nasty shock. For in this marvellous, spacious square, there had been erected a temporary stage, with the usual speakers etc for the performance of pop music. The noise did not make contemplation the Victorian ideals of self-improvement, highmindedness and the rest as expressed in the buildings a particularly easy task.

Next, more Brutalism – in this case, the City Library. Prince Charles described is as “looking more like a place for burning books than keeping them,” but it was innocent enough, which of course means it lacked the panache which is the essential appeal of Brutalism.

It is being demolished and something new by Mecanoo is planned.

An impressive footbridge led to Centenary Square, home to Symphony Hall, and the Birmingham Rep.

Symphony Hall is a building to be appreciated from inside. The acoustics are certainly among the finest, if not the finest in the world, and the massive sound doors which achieve this are an architectural feature in themselves. But outside, you see only a ten years or so old building, which is already looking – well – a bit past its best, and of unimpressive dimensions.

Birmingham, as Tim Mars pointed out, had to overcome a huge disadvantage to expand in the pre-railway age. It was nowhere near a navigable river to bring in raw materials for manufacture and to send finished goods out into the world.

This was remedied by the construction of the Grand Union Canal, the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, linking the city with the Severn, and the Birmingham Canal navigation, an interlocking system within the city itself.

And next we found ourselves on the towpath of the restored system, with its gaily-painted cruising narrow boats, and flower-bedecked bridges, which seemed cleaner, and pleasanter featured than on an earlier visit.

As Tim pointed out, comparisons with Venice are ludicrous. These were working waterways based on industry , not a thoroughfare for the transpoirt of Doges lying lazily in their gondolas.

It is something that has been overlooked by the developers, who have torn down the old warehouses, and put in their place facades of similar design which conceal hotels, shops and housing.

It was time for another break. Some stayed in The Mailbox shopping mall for tea and coffee to chain café specifications.

The more enterprising found a Victorian gem of a pub a hundred yards away, the Craven Arms, with unspoiled windows and tiled, and an interior or fairly convincing pseudo Victorian pub furniture.

And next to Chinatown, with its pagoda statue. But more impressive still was the display of toothsome roast ducks in the restaurant windows.

And so back to the Bull Ring via the Hippodrome theatre where one tourist reminisced about the performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle he had heard there performed by Welsh National Opera. Birmingham’s culture is not just Symphony Hall.

At last – the Bull Ring offered somewhere to sit whilst its disparate styles were described. Completely redesigned in the 1960s, it is having another revamp, and the distorted green mosaic building was one that you either loved or hated.

Against passing fads, St Martin in the Bullring stands mute and immune to change.

Finally, there was a march through Selfridges. It is of minimalist design, although a cynic would say that the budget had run out before the ceilings could be installed leaving central heating pipes, ventilation ducts and the like uncovered, visible, and, depending on your viewpoint, eye catching or an eyesore.

The tour had taken four and a half hours with a couple of stops, and had shown the development of a Victorian city into one which is still changing and growing with the developments of the 21st century.

Whether these disparate styles live comfortably together was a question which the 25 tourists will ponder in the months ahead. It was a challenging tour.

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