Sir Frank Price, Lord Mayor of Birmingham 1964-5 and former Chair of the Public Works Committee during the period of the post-war reconstruction, has been demolished. Or, rather the building on the University of Birmingham’s Selly Oak campus that was named after him has been. It was a nondescript design, pulled down earlier this year as part of campus redevelopment. There is a fitting irony that one of the people who saw fit to pull down much of Victorian Birmingham to build its Modernist future has now been a victim of the same fashion that seeks to erase a ‘failed’ past.
Ever since I moved to Birmingham back in 2000 I’ve noticed its deep seated habit of trying to erase its history. You saw the same with the Victorian buildings removed in the 1960s and 1970s – beautiful structures being removed with the same carefree abandon as terrible slums of the same era simply because that period was tainted with the brush of being failed. Many years ago I wrote my PhD on a particular form of 20th century architecture, the high-rise social housing block. Birmingham originally built 464 of these and today a very large proportion of these have been demolished, mostly without tears. But the discourse of mid 20th century buildings being ‘failures’ is very strong, so when nice examples go you do worry slightly for the collective memory of the city. Although, to be fair, in some cases, the experimental building materials pioneered in the mid twentieth century can make it impossible or prohibitively expensive to save them. Still, some can be saved and it’s strange to tear them down without reflection.
Cycling into town last week, I noticed that the Central Synagogue on Pershore Road was being pulled down. This was a source of great sadness for me, as it was one of my favourite buildings in Birmingham for its understated elegance, as well as being a good example of design from the period.
Built in the early 1960s, it had echoes of post office architecture from the time, restrained and simple, with lovely thin banded columns. With new facilities having been built, the site has been handed over to a developer erecting a new care home and the building torn down. While one can’t shed a tear over every building lost (and doubtless the new facilities will be more amenable to the community) it’s always a shame to lose nice examples from the period.
A less clear cut example would be the Holliday Street car park which finally came down this summer A very simple, stark structure, with echoes of Le Corbusier’s Domino House – not a line out of place. But the guard rails between the second and third floors, jutting out like the top of a medieval castle and the wonderful period signage hint at something more playful. No great loss to the city, in many ways, and doubtless expensive to save structurally. Nonetheless, the proposed 18 storey Holliday Inn Express on the site won’t really add anything in its place – another piece of forgettable corporate building.
The Victorian era Central Library was demolished in 1974 shortly after John Madin’s brutalist-style replacement was built over the city’s modernist ring road. Now that Mecanoo’s Library of Birmingham has opened, Madin’s building is on borrowed time. The city is determined to demolish this architecturally significant period piece because it’s ‘ugly’, ‘old fashioned’ and ‘in the way’ of new development. Will LoB suffer the same indignity in the face of the whims of fashion in thirty or forty years time? Well, trying to erase the past is very much the Birmingham way...
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer