Each revision of the Pevsner architectural guides – with their copious additional details and superb color photography – opens readers’ eyes to what should have been obvious. Buildings that one might have walked past heedlessly are revealed to be beauties.
Seldom has this been more evident than with the latest volume, Birmingham and the Black Country, which draws on three volumes of the original edition – Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire – to create a guide to the conurbation around England’s second city. Intense development has left few traces from before the 18th century in Birmingham itself, though they may be found on the outskirts – such as in the ninth- or 10th-century cross at the fine 15th-century church of St Peter, Wolverhampton, or the handsome late Norman work at St John the Baptist, Halesowen.
But in inner Birmingham there remain, despite the predations of the past 80 or so years, innumerable examples of the finest Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian architecture, as well as nationally significant art deco masterpieces – notably the former Odeon at Kingstanding, now a bingo hall , with its curved front and three-fanned tower.
Birmingham’s fine Georgian and Edwardian streets discount the popular impression that the city is a concrete jungle. It certainly suffered badly after the war: not so much because of the Luftwaffe, though that played its part, but in the conscious vandalism that stemmed from the megalomania and sheer aesthetic ignorance of planners and councilors from the 1950s to the 1970s.
These failings resulted in the demolition of buildings that now would have been listed as a matter of course: in 1963, the wrecking ball was taken to the Market Hall of 1831-35, and then, in 1974, to JH Chamberlain’s Central Library, which was replaced by a new, brutalist structure by John Madin. To be fair to Madin, he had intended his overwhelming structure to be faced in marble, not concrete. But Birmingham said it could not afford such extravagance, so concrete it was, and horrible it quickly became.
I saw it about 15 years ago, when the concrete had already discolored and parts were dropping off the building – so dangerously that netting had to be placed over it to stop it injuring pedestrians. It too was pulled down, despite a campaign to save it: it was not worth the effort, though the Pevsner says it had “wonderful flowing space inside”. Its mildly less revolting replacement is also mediocre.
That is the problem with too much of “modern” Birmingham. In the 1960s and 1970s, building contracts were handed out in return for favors – the city’s chief architect, Alan Maudsley, was jailed for corruption – with beauty and practicality counting for little. There is no excuse, though, for more recent abominations, such as the “restoration” of the Bullring with its notorious “Blob” – a department store covered in aluminum discs – apparently deemed acceptable because it was not so tatty or plain as what it replaced.