Friday, 4 July 2014

Something about Buildings and Food - Mostly Buildings (+ 2 cakes), Mostly Brutalist, Several in Birmingham

Birmingham Ziggurat Cupcake (2014). (The ziggurat of John Madin's Birmingham Central Library (1974) on a cake.)
John Madin, Birmingham Central Library, 1974
I had a great day in Birmingham on Saturday 28 June attending "Raw Beauty: A New Life for Brutalist Buildings" organised by the Twentieth Century Society and Friends of Birmingham Central Library. The venue for a series of interesting talks was The Birmingham and Midland Institute ("A right old mix-up of styles: red brick with gables, mullions, and banded Ionic columns and pilasters" - Pevsner (1966) Warwickshire, p125).
Cossins, Peacock & Bewlay, 1899: Birmingham & Midland Institute, Margaret St.
Joe Holyoak launched proceedings and introduced Barnabas Calder who gave an excellent talk Brutalism - why save it? which entertainingly contextualised the style and celebrated the local hero John Madin and the 'greatest' British Brutalist Denys Lasdun amongst others. Buildings highlighted included Madin's Birmingham Central Library, Lasdun's National Theatre ('spectacularly high-craft'), Chamberlin, Powell & Bon's University of Leeds and the 'sublime' Barbican (the concrete was given its 'finish' by abseiling workmen with power-hammers!) and (a personal favourite) the Hayward Gallery by Norman Engleback et al.
Denys Lasdun, National Theatre, 1967-76
Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, The Roger Stevens Building, University of Leeds, 1970
Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, Barbican complex, 1965-76

Norman Engleback, Ron Herron and Warren Chalk, Hayward Gallery, 1968
Ross Brown discussed the challenges of adapting redundant Brutalist buildings for new uses and Sally Stone and Christina Malathouni told the inspiring story of Gate 81 the group which has triumphantly changed local perceptions of the fabulous Preston Bus Station from the 'most hated' building in Preston to the 'most loved' (as polled in the Lancashire Evening Post) and been instrumental in achieving listed status for the building. Malathouni noted that the 3 representatives of British Brutalism on the World Monuments 'Watch List' are the South Bank Complex, Preston Bus Station and Birmingham Central Library. Time is running out, however, to save Birmingham Library which is scheduled for imminent demolition.
Building Design Partnership, Preston Bus Station, 1968-9
Andy Foster, an architectural historian trained (in his own words) by 'old fogeys' with a classical bent and no fondness for the Brutalist extremes of Modernism, but who, nevertheless, found a love for Birmingham Central Library, enthused about the building's internal flow of space and offered a (fanciful?) 'reading' of the building's form as a playful variation on classical themes exemplified in buildings such as William Winde's seventeenth century Ashdown House in Berkshire!
William Winde (attrib.), Ashdown House, Oxfordshire (formerly Berkshire), C17
A guided lunchtime walk - with ziggurat cakes - provided the opportunity to visit Paradise Place, circumnavigate the Central Library and take in a view of Richard Seifert's Alpha Tower. My group was ably guided by Alan Clawley author of a monograph on John Madin the library's architect.
John Madin, Birmingham Central Library, 1974
Paradise Place, the site of Birmingham Central Library
Reflection of the Central Library in abandoned water feature, Paradise Place
John Madin, Birmingham Central Library, 1974
John Madin, Birmingham Central Library, 1974
John Madin, Birmingham Central Library, 1974

Staff celebrate the Central Library's tenth birthday in June 1983 (photo from Birmingham Post)
Richard Seifert, Alpha Tower, Birmingham, 1969-73
Dr Roger Bowdler of English Heritage gave an interesting talk about the successes and failures of getting buildings listed - English Heritage makes recommendations to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport where the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries (currently Ed Vaizey) makes the final decision. Modern buildings must demonstrate exceptional importance above and beyond 'special interest'.
The day concluded with an interesting talk by Catherine Croft (author of Concrete Architecture) who told us everything anyone had ever wanted to know about concrete but was afraid to ask, in particular the challenges of repair and restoration. Catherine recommeded viewing Adam Curtis' film Inquiry: The Great British Housing Disaster (1984) and reading Concrete Quarterly (free online!).
The only disappointment of the day was that Owen Hatherley (A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain) was not able to be present for  the guided walk; however, he generously supplied a text copy of A walk aound the modern architecture of Birmingham City Centre which will be my guide on my next visit to the city, taking in John Madin's Nat West Tower ("futuristic concrete exressionism, a praying mantis in in brown concrete and purple engineering brick, throwing up its antennae as if against an opponent" and Bicknell and Hamilton's New Street signal box ("a utilitarian little building whose compacted concrete Vorticism shames most of the self-conscious, self-displaying architecture around it.")
A great day - thanks to all concerned.
John Madin, Nat West Tower (now 103 Colmore Row), Birmingham, 1973-6
Bicknell and Hamilton, New Street Station Signal Box, Birmingham, 1965

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