Pevsner Architectural Guides: Birmingham By Andrew Foster. Yale University Press, 2005. 326pp. £9.99
Directly across the street from Future Systems'Selfridges stands a little blind-windowed building. It is revealed here for the first time that this is Birmingham's last surviving 19th-century music hall. This is typical both of the city's littleknown architectural history and of the numerous surprises that are found within this fine book - astonishing value for a tenner.
In addition to the riches of the text, the many colour photographs, mostly by James Davies, are ravishing.
Andrew Foster is opinionated in the true Pevsner manner. Selfridges is 'an appalling neighbour'. In the Central Library 'space flows magically'. The city council's new information centre in New Street 'clashes horribly'. You needn't agree, but it makes for entertaining reading.
In the 1966 Warwickshire volume of the Buildings of England, Birmingham rated 118 pages; in this new guide it gets more than 300. There is much new research and more extensive coverage of the city centre, with excursions to several outlying areas such as Edgbaston, the University of Birmingham, Aston and Bournville. But you will still need your old Pevsner if you want to visit, say, Maguire and Murray's St Matthew's church or Pugin's St Mary's College.
Until recently, nobody visited Birmingham for pleasure. Only a few came to study the architecture (mostly Bournville). People came here to work, to shop, or to study for a degree. Birmingham was certainly ambitious from the 1870s onwards but the ambition was often expressed in quantity, not quality. In the 1960s, the municipal machine built more council dwellings than anywhere else; those which remain are mostly a liability. Birmingham completed its inner ring road while other cities were hesitating; 20 years later it regretted its boldness and started dismantling it. In the 1970s it defeated London to build a National Exhibition Centre; the result was a joyless collection of big sheds.
But, largely uncelebrated, there has always been an architecture in Birmingham worthy of attention. It often shared some of the qualities of the place and its economy - hard-headed, small-scale, practical and unsentimental.
Nationally, prominent architects have regularly designed important buildings: Thomas Archer, A W N Pugin, Charles Barry, William Lethaby and, less successfully, Norman Foster and Nicholas Grimshaw. But until recently the dominant architectural culture has been largely locally grown.
Foster draws attention to his particular local heroes:
William Bidlake, 'foremost Birmingham architect of the Arts and Crafts', praised by Hermann Muthesius in Das Englische Haus; Lethaby's disciple Edwin Reynolds, designer of austerely composed houses, factories, pubs and churches;
and the city's best post-war architect, John Madin. His 1957 commission by the Calthorpe Estate to replan Edgbaston showed how Modernism could sensitively complement 19th-century arcadia. His own fine early '60s house there, Foster notes, 'was nastily rebuilt in 1991'. (He doesn't name names but we know who he is. ) Madin's major buildings have fared no better. His 195960 Chamber of Commerce in Edgbaston, with its John Piper mosaic mural, will soon be demolished. Also under threat are his two best city-centre buildings, the Lever Houseinfluenced 1966 Post and Mail building, and the Corbusian 1973 Central Library. Implied in the book is the belief that the attitudes that destroyed many of the city's best Victorian buildings in the 60s and 70s still persist, now showing the same indiscriminate blindness to the merits of the best post-war Modernism. This book provides valuable evidence which may at least help to counter them.
Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer and a reader at Birmingham School of Architecture One painting in this book is titled Concrete Ditch With Sewer Main, Texas City; another is Four Spots Along A Razor-Wire Fence.
Born in England, Rackstraw Downes lives in the US but he's kept an outsider's eye. His subjects are ones which many photographers have focused on in the past two decades but far fewer painters - construction sites, highway intersections, 'abandoned land and trashscapes'. Downes shuns the glamorous or the monumental (apart from infrastructure).
There's no machine-age romance, as there was between the wars, or painterly flourishes to sugar the pill. The works are often panoramic in format:
inclusive, democratic, with no detail more important than another. Downes makes a detached inventory of the mundane built world.