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An 8mm film of Brum in 1964


bickster
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Birminghams planners are at it again. When people hiss and spit the word 'planner' and scrunch up their faces as if they have found a dead cockroach in their mouth, the stereotype they have in mind is Sir Herbert Manzoni. As one of the individuals who helped draft the 1944 Town and Country Planning Act, Manzoni had as much influence on the evolving face of Britain as the system of field enclosure, although with perhaps less positive benefits.

As city engineer of Birmingham from 1935 to 1963, Manzoni zealously created what is ritually seen as a Godless, concrete urban hell, which was obsolete before it was finished. His successors now have a Big City Plan (capitalised thus), a handy £17bn budget and a twinkle in their eyes. Their intention is to design a new sort of city. And since the council actually owns about 50 per cent of its dominion, no one is going to stop it. This is the biggest project of its kind anywhere in the world: a major city - sequentially industrialised, motorised, traumatised, demonised, stigmatised, de-industrialised - is now being reinvented. Why? How?

The Battle for Birmingham begins with the Battle of Britain. The last Luftwaffe raid on the city began on 9 April 1941. Birmingham woke up the day after to brick dust and debris, with much of the city centre missing. This neo-biblical act of destruction inspired in Manzoni an urgent, messianic sense of rebirth. 'The whole area must be new and it must look completely different,' he said. In the cultural climate of the Forties, 'new and different' led to a single-path solution to a complex social, economic and architectural problem. Manzoni began planning the hated Inner Ring Road in 1943, when private cars seemed symbols of wealth and instruments of personal liberation.

What the Heinkels and Dorniers began, Manzoni continued. Numberless fine monuments to Birmingham's Victorian industrial and commercial pomp were razed to accommodate vehicle ramps, a new Bull Ring and a new railway station. Manzoni was unflinching - he had no time for 'tangible links with the past'. He saw 'little of value' in Birmingham's heritage, conceding only that a few old buildings might be kept as 'museum pieces'. It was the planner's solemn duty, in his scripture, to forge ahead, wherever that was, not look backwards.

A landmark result of this planning philosophy was Birmingham's Central Library, once Europe's largest, whose design was begun in 1964. This concrete ziggurat was the work of a local practice, the John Madin Design Group, although it clearly looks to le Corbusier's international style as inspiration. The library was finished in 1974. Extraordinary that an urban vision formed during the Blitz was realised in the age of glam rock.

Just 15 years later, the Prince of Wales, in one of his then regular fits of sentimentalist rhetoric, said this fine municipal monument to learning looked more like a 'place for burning books, not keeping them'. Taste changes. In 2001, Birmingham City Council decided on demolition, so Manzoni's Modernism may go the way of the city's vehicle manufacturers. Last month, seven architects du jour were shortlisted for the £193m library design competition. The no-surprises-here list comprises: the offices of Norman Foster, Michael Hopkins, Chris Wilkinson and Rem Koolhaas, together with Foreign Office Architects, Mecanoo and Schmidt Hammer Lassen. The result will be announced later in the summer and if it is built, the new library will become the latest element of a civic centre that has developed in fits and starts since the first masterplan was proposed in 1918. I write 'if' because there are voices of dissent.

First, from Cabe, the government's Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which earlier this month chose Birmingham, city of a thousand trades, as host of its climate change conference. Can demolition of a structurally sound building be reconciled with the demanding new religion of sustainability? Why squander energy and resources with the wrecker's ball?

Second, from leading Birmingham architect Glenn Howells, who says the future should not be a city 'full of landmarks, but full of dense stuff'. Smaller scale, varied textures, tight grain and surprises are the agreeable dogma of today as much as vistas, space, alignments, axes, traffic separation, motorways and monuments were the now unfashionable dogma of 60 years ago.

Brindleyplace, a popular inner-city development exploiting redundant canals and other 19th-century infrastructure mingled with Midlands extensions of London's restaurant revolution, became in the Nineties a successful example of what can be achieved. Here, an intelligent masterplan allowed large, dignified new commercial buildings to sit comfortably with the picturesque Gas Street Basin, its canals and its folklore. Appearing here soon, out of a terrifyingly abysmal brown hole in the ground, will be the Cube, bidding to be the new Birmingham's signature building, alongside Future Systems' amazing globular Selfridges of 2003, already known as the Digbeth Dalek. A now familiar mixture of shops, offices, flats and a hotel, the Cube is clad in staggered aluminium boxes tinted brass and silver, the metal effect mimicking Birmingham traditions.

Another signature building is the Rotunda. The original was a 1965 design by Jim Roberts, the culminating feature of the rebuilt Bull Ring. Like many Sixties conceits, a revolving restaurant was planned for the summit, but abandoned at the last moment. Ever since, in compensation, the Rotunda's reputation has been going around in circles. Neglected, then derided and now Grade II listed, its future is assured after an elegant make-over into apartments by Glenn Howells and Urban Splash.

These emphatic punctuation marks on the skyline notwithstanding, a new generation of planners has a concept for Birmingham in sympathy with Glenn Howells's belief that Manzoni Modernism was 'too loose, too leaky'. Kelvin Campbell of planning consultancy Urban Initiatives created Birmingham's Big City Plan. A robust contrarian at odds with the rigid conventions of planning, he believes tenants should be offered an architectural empty canvas and colour it in themselves.

Audaciously, Campbell is banning eco cliches and will not have any talk of sustainability. Instead, he wants Birmingham and its 50,000 small businesses to be thought of as a fast-evolving 'smart city'. Best of all, Campbell insists on a fine principle: it is not the act of riding a bike that makes a good city. Instead, proper urban design positively stimulates the use of bicycles. So, in the home of Dunlop tyres and Brooks saddles, we must happily look forward to the return of the bike.

Traffic-wise, post-Manzoni Birmingham was always a nightmare: you shot past your ring-road junction only to be condemned to another circuit of an idealist's hell. The new Birmingham will be new and different... again. Glenn Howells wants it to become a 'city to get lost in'. But only in the best possible sense.

Observer (2008)
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Appearing here soon, out of a terrifyingly abysmal brown hole in the ground, will be the Cube, bidding to be the new Birmingham's signature building

The-Cube1.jpg

I was in the Mailbox yesterday and I have to say the Cube is an ugly building. It blocks all the light to the bars and restaurants which is sad because it was a sunny day.

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Really noticeable how all the cars, bar one, were British - there was one Peugeot that I saw, the rest were all Ford Anglias and Morris Minors etc. And not much traffic at all really.

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Really interesting how one could s/Birmingham/Boston/g and s/Manzoni/Logue/g and a lot of it would make sense.

Scollay Square, before and after

scollaysqbeforeafter.jpg

Boston City Hall, I'm told, bears a certain resemblance to the Birmingham Central Library, with about the same perception.

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I miss the old Bull Ring. Used to go every Saturday with my nan. We'd have a walk round town, then get some chips from the chippy that was at the top of the steps above the fruit and veg market. It was ace, because you could put your own salt and vinegar on them. Then we'd go into the indoor markets so she could do her shopping. She was on first name terms with the owners of her favorite stalls. She went to Alan (the butcher and fishmongers) wedding. He'd always tell her what was good this week and not so good and he'd always have saved her something. I used to like looking at the live crabs.

Them days are gone forever. :(

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Thing is, what you boys are calling the "old" Bull Ring is what I still think of as the "new" Bull Ring - I agree that it was shit, but I can just - JUST - remember the "proper" Bull Ring, before the 60s planners trashed it. My mom used to take me shopping down there when I was a toddler. Mostly what I remember is cobblestones and the smell of fish.

Oh, and Levi - yes, the Boston City Hall is very much like the Birmingham Central Library. I remember sweating over my massively overdue undergraduate dissertation in there in 1975, when it had been open for less than a year. I thought it was a pretty cool design at the time, but like much modernist architecture it didn't age well.

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