Why Contribute to the Spread of Ugliness?

“I have never been very certain as to the value of tangible links with the past…”
– Sir Herbert Manzoni, Birmingham City Engineer and Surveyor 1935–1963

The 1960s were the high point of Birmingham’s ambitious post-war redevelopment programme. After clearing large tracts of the city’s Victorian architecture, the centre was revolutionised with the completion of the ring road, the opening of the Bull Ring shopping centre and the arrival of high-profile constructions such as the Rotunda and the Post and Mail building.

At its opening in 1965, the Post and Mail building was described in an ATV documentary as “a proud landmark for the new forward looking Birmingham”. The scale and ambition of the building was impressive: the vast advertising hall, the on-site foundry, the subterranean machine hall as big as a football pitch. Above the state of the art printing house stood a sixteen-storey office block clad in aluminium, its concrete beams coated with granite and white marble. At the top of the tower was a 24-hour electric clock flashing out the time and temperature in six-foot-high figures, a feature so impossibly modern and exciting that according to the ATV film, a man living five miles away chose to check the time each day with his binoculars rather than look at his watch.

From its futuristic headquarters the Birmingham Mail was a great propagator of civic optimism, capturing perfectly the typical second city blend of ambition and insecurity. Artists’ impressions of new grand schemes regularly occupied the front page. Faceless people walked across elevated walkways and empty plazas. Monorails, of course, moved across the skies. The utopia promised in place names like Paradise Circus was endlessly re-imagined and then wiped away again

“In planning this building we have had the future so much in mind. We’re not planning for my lifetime, we’re planning for those who are coming after me.’
– Sir Eric Clayson, Chairman, Birmingham Post and Mail Group, 1965

The Post and Mail building which had taken a decade to plan and build and had been intended to last a hundred years, managed only forty and was demolished in 2005.

There is a melancholy organisation called The Rubble Club, open only to those architects who have lived to see their buildings destroyed. John Madin, architect of the Post and Mail building and many others of Birmingham’s post-war redevelopment, must now be considered a leading member, having lived to see three of his notable buildings demolished, with a fourth, Birmingham’s Central Library, at the centre of Paradise Circus, soon to follow.

The fate of Madin’s Post and Mail building was perhaps even crueller than simple demolition: only the visible parts were demolished, the vast undergound printing house remains. When we speak of the past beneath our feet we tend to imagine fragments and shards. It is then unsettling to find an entire structure intact and entombed. It opens up the idea that all of the city’s vanished buildings—the unfashionable, the obsolete, the flawed, the beautiful—were not demolished, but simply archived below ground. Layer upon layer of abandoned structures, patrolled by lonely security guards kicking footballs about their vast echoing spaces.

It’s in another underground chamber, beneath the inverted ziggurat of Madin’s Central Library, in an area originally intended as a new bus station, that a substantial portion of the architect’s actual paper archive is held in 487 cardboard boxes in varying states of repair.

In some ways it seems appropriate that such a key record of Birmingham’s post-war development should be underground. The sixties and seventies were Birmingham’s subterranean heyday. Whilst the surface of the city was surrendered to cars, pedestrians were channelled above or more often below ground. Few other cities surely could rival the space, care and attention Birmingham lavished upon its underpasses. Whilst a few were straightforward, mosaic lined passages, many more attempted to be destinations in themselves: hidden shopping precincts; sunken parks set below busy roundabouts complete with water features and public art. Sadly Birmingham’s citizens retained a stubborn fondness for surface and sunlight and so the lower tier pleasure grounds became melancholy, lonely, Sunday afternoon type places.

In due course the battered boxes of the Madin archive will be raised up from the depths and carefully moved to the new Library of Birmingham, while the library that currently holds them, the library whose genesis is documented within them, and whose construction heralded the controversial demolition of the old Victorian library, will itself be demolished.

“I hope to see in the near future a greater and more beautiful Birmingham and I also wish that I shall be one of those lucky men who will, with care and sympathy, be able to graft our City into the finest in the World.” [1]
– John Madin, aged 16, December 1940

Standing shoulder to shoulder in the bowels of the condemned building, the boxes are an uncomfortable reminder of the optimism of beginnings still awkwardly hanging around at the bitter end.

Archives are not accustomed to the public gaze. Concealment is one of their defining features. From the private archives we accrete during our lives, stuffed in lofts or under-stairs cupboards or overhead lofts, to public archives in refrigerated subterranean vaults. Whilst much of the justification for this is to do with protecting the fragile evidence, there is perhaps an element of protecting ourselves too. Archives are the detritus of a life or an organisation, the sediment that has settled, and there’s an extent to which, as we push the bulging boxes out of view, we are pleading with some unseen other to make sense of it all.

The boxes of John Madin’s archive resemble soldiers returning from some gruelling engagement—dirty, battleworn, some damaged, some broken beyond repair. Like the building that houses them they have been buffeted by time. In the light of the building’s fate, their survival in one sense seems counter-intuitive. We talk of firm plans as ‘concrete’ or ‘set in stone’, but here such language fails us. We must regard the boxes with a certain knowledge. In Birmingham, cardboard has outlasted concrete. But perhaps this is not so strange. The point of archives is to survive and to outlive that which they document. They are there to mark an absence, to trace a crooked line, in curled notebooks and faded photographs, around the negative space of a life or a place. At the heart of every archive is a void.

What is unsettling about the Madin archive is the way in which it seems to telescope time. Madin’s eyes, like those of any architect, were set firmly on the horizon of the future and yet now, just a few years on, the boxes seem to speak of an ancient past. The archive is the repository of the ideas and inspirations behind that brief flickering present sandwiched somewhere between the artists’ impressions and the wrecking ball—a key phase in the history of the city, of architecture and of urban planning.

The idea of a city remaining only on paper is both forlorn and mythical. I like the concept of 1960s Birmingham as a kind of Brutalist Atlantis for future historians. I imagine them leafing through the archives, ploughing through the minutes of Birmingham City Council meetings and structural engineers’ reports trying to find traces of lost underpasses.

One such lost underpass is Manzoni Gardens, a semi-submerged rest area for Bull Ring shoppers in the heart of a busy traffic island, built in 1962. Named after the groundbreaking City Engineer bent on wiping away all traces of the past, it seems appropriate that his memorial is now buried somewhere beneath the new Bullring shopping centre.

Like Manzoni Gardens, the John Madin archive, reminds us that we do not decide, what, if anything might be remembered of us and neither do we decide how, if at all, our lives might be interpreted. We can, though, decide to remember and to interpret. We can make new connections and pathways. We can perhaps choose, as some of our predecessors did not choose, to see the value of tangible links to the past.

Hanging on the wall on the top floor of Madin’s Central library are two foundation plaques. One commemorates the opening in 1866 of the late Victorian library. Next to it a plaque commemorates the opening in 1974, by Harold Wilson, of the current library. On a recent visit I found myself thinking again of past buildings buried beneath us. I imagined the two plaques sitting side by side next to a third plaque in the new Library of Birmingham. I wondered how many more might accumulate in my lifetime. Above the plaques was Birmingham’s motto ‘Forward’ and above that a single detail had been taken from the top of the city’s coat of arms: an arm swinging a hammer.

[1] Christopher Madin, John Madin – Architect and& Planner – An Illustrated Record ebook – Christopher Madin, 2011, p.10

First appeared in the catalogue accompanying Stuart Whipps’s Ikon show Why Contribute to the Spread of Ugliness?, 2011