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Part 2: Birmingham – a city is born

By Katie Hughes 6 Nov 2014

The second of three blogs about the architecture of Birmingham by our blogger Katie Hughes from Architectureonmydoorstep.

1889 – Birmingham gained city status and the city was prospering financially on both a national and global level. The use of vibrant red terracotta became the material of choice as a cheap alternative to stone and functional aesthetics gave way to elaborate facades with decorative carvings such as the Bell Edison Telephone Exchange Building (1896) on Newhall Street. Architects Martin & Chamberlain epitomised the High Victorian style designing the Birmingham Board Schools and the School of Art on Margaret Street (1885), whilst James Lister & Lea designed a large number of terracotta and red brick public houses. Birmingham became a city of vibrant red gothic revival buildings amidst the smoke and pollution of an industrial city.

Edwardian Brum saw a shift from the ornate to the vernacular with the Arts and Crafts style offering a simpler aesthetic. The city was influenced greatly by industrialists such as the Cadbury and Nettlefold families who strived for social reforms such as better living conditions for workers and access to education. Leafy village estates were built for workers such as Bournville and Moorpool and suburbia flourished.  After the First World War, the roaring 20’s saw the rise of the cinematic age and Birmingham born Oscar Deutsch founded the Odeon Cinema chain and built many Art Deco cinemas across the city. Interwar housing estates spilled out into the countryside and the footprint of the city more than doubled in size.

Construction came to a standstill during the Second World War and the city was heavily bombed. Extensive rebuilding started in the 1950s and the population peaked resulting in a demand for new housing. This period of history was Birmingham’s most dramatic transformation as the Post War rebuild began. Inner city slums were cleared and replaced with concrete tower blocks and the ring road system was developed to reflect the rise of car ownership. City planners began to rebuild the city demolishing many period buildings such as the original station and library, a decision which many now see as a travesty. However at the time Victorian architecture was no longer fashionable, modernism was seen as the way forward and the concrete city was born.

One man who made a massive contribution to the redevelopment of Post War Birmingham was architect John Madin who designed Central Library in 1973. His Brutalist designs were bold, striking and equally contentious, polarising public opinion.

This was a controversial time in the city’s architectural history and left a bitter taste for many people. Most of the buildings constructed between the 1950’s to 70’s are now either demolished or under threat. It appears to be a time many people would rather forget. I personally think that the architecture of this time deserves some credit; after all it has provided us with unique landmarks such as the Rotunda (1965), the New St Signal Box (1964) and the inverted ziggurat of Central Library (1973) which is unfortunately set to be demolished.

Photography by Katie Hughes

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