Monday, 19 January 2009

Madin's Lament

Birmingham is, for the uninitiated, a fair mecca for lovers of Brutalist architecture. Most of it was designed by one John Madin, a Brum native who came to dominate the city's post-war skyline with his vast concrete conceptions.

A trip into town with a camera today however is lent a plaintive, romantic air, as Madin, now in his eighties, is alive to witness the buildings he designed fall prey to the wrecking ball, one by one. Several of the structures he created between the 1950's & 1970's have both gone up and come down already (including the BBC's Pebble Mill studios), and now his most controversial design, the Central Library, is also set for demolition.

The upturned pyramidal stack or 'ziggurat' has been the subject of both considerable acclaim and scorn since its' completion in 1974, when it was originally intended to form the central focus of a wider complex including a bus station beneath the ground level of the structure, surrounding water gardens and walkways linking other civic buildings. Changes in fashion and taste and the conflict of private investment meant none of these further developments were realised, and a choice of cheaper but substandard materials have taken their collective toll on the building's facade. Madin himself has lambasted the city's council for allowing his plans to be compromised so drastically, and for stuffing the main square with cheap shops and fast food outlets. The neglected pools he designed he described in 2007 as "a scene of absolute devastation".

In the summer of 2008, the Dutch firm Mecanoo won an international RIBA-launched competition to design a replacement for Madin's library, which, according to the Architect's Journal, "the city council is trying to persuade architecture minister Margaret Hodge not to list".

The old NatWest building on Colmore Row is another of Madin's designs, and looks even more forlorn, peppered as it was on the day we visited with the ejected contents of both kebabs and bird's guts. However, the 20th Century Society are strenuously campaigning for the protection of this period of architecture, whose sci-fi planes and elevations continue to inspire designers and graf writers the world over. And despite the seemingly wholesale culling of Madin's work, Birmingham is still host to a number of memorable Brutalist structures. The corrugated casing of the New Street Signal Box - complete with giant lever - is absolutely stunning, as is the sheer expanse of the Jury's Inn hotel, a skyscraper possessing the kind of bravado which might have been rewarded with a split-screen starring role in the Dallas title sequence had the Ewings relocated their enterprises.

Meanwhile, another of the city's broadcasting landmarks is, as I type, being levelled. The old ATV studios, adjacent to the former ITV franchise holders' headquarters, the enormous Alpha Tower (Grade A locally-listed), is slowly seeing its' distinctive diamond arches disappear after lying empty for a decade.

As I emerged from Broad Street, a chill wind whistled through the Alpha's angled piloti and flattened the demolition contractors' 'keep out' boards, helping to reveal the sad exterior in various states of destruction. A combination of crisp, sharp sunlight gently fading and the image in my head of flan-flinger-as-reaper conspired to ghost the lens, and the shots accordingly lost their focus. Here's hoping Mecanoo will help Birmingham's civic fathers regain theirs.