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Obituary: John Madin (1924-2012)


Birmingham Central Library architect John Madin has died at the age of 87

Madin was born in Birmingham’s Moseley district in March 1924, and played an influential role in the city’s architecture throughout his career.

He went to Stanley House School before studying architecture at Birmingham University and served in the Royal Engineers during the Second World War.

He started practising as an architect in 1949 and established John H D Madin & Partners in 1962. The company was renamed John Madin Design Group in 1968, and became John Madin Design Group International with offices in Switzerland and the US seven years later.

Future generations will regret the loss of many of his fine buildings

Among his notable projects are the Chamber of Commerce Building, Birmingham Central Library, Shell Mex and BP House at Edgbaston, and Metropolitan House at Five Ways.

Known for working in the Brutalist style, Madin was unfortunate in having a number of his buildings demolished during his lifetime, including the AEU Building in Smallbrook Queensway, Birmingham Post and Mail Building and BBC Pebble Mill Studios.

Birmingham Central Library

Despite a campaign by the Twentieth Century Society to list his Birmingham Central Library, Madin’s city-centre landmark is also to be bulldozed. A new library designed by Mecanoo is already well under construction and is due to open its doors next year (2013).

Birmingham’s former director of planning and regeneration described the building as a ‘concrete monstrosity’ while Prince Charles described it as ‘looking more like a place for burning books, than keeping them’.

Twentieth Century Society director Catherine Croft said: ‘John Madin changed the face of Birmingham. Future generations will regret the loss of many of his fine buildings. It would be great to see a reversal of the decision to demolish Birmingham Central Library as a tribute to this great man.’

Former RIBA president Owen Luder said: ‘John was pushing the frontiers of mainly commercial design in Birmingham in the exciting 1960s. He was a major figure in the redevelopment of Birmingham.

‘It is a great pity that those iconic buildings will not be there as a memorial to his skill and expertise as an architect.’

Bob Ghosh of Birmingham-based K4 Architects said: ‘Madin was a serious architect, who understood form, space and material, unlike many of his contemporaries.

‘[Yet] due to the pace of change in our city, many of Madin’s buildings have now disappeared. Some should have been retained, most notably the Post and Mail building and plaza, which had more than a subtle reference to Mies. 

‘Had he ultimately realised the ambition of building the inverted ziggurat form of the Birmingham Central Library in shimmering white stone, then perhaps it would have been listed, rather than being condemned as another example of concrete Brutalism.

‘The more I see of Mecanoo’s new replacement Library of Birmingham, with its highly stylised form and its frivolous envelope, I can’t help questioning whether we’re doing the right thing. Nevertheless, we did need a new library for the 21st century, and Argent and Glenn Howells will replace Madin’s building with something of extraordinary quality and address the dysfunctional spaces around it.

He was one of our city fathers and without his legacy, many of the good things in modern Birmingham would not have happened

‘Coincidentally, the Ikon Gallery currently has an exhibition by artist Stuart Whipps which reveals Birmingham Central Library’s previously hidden archive of Madin’s work. The exhibition chronicles the sheer volume of the man’s prolific achievements - pictures of archive boxes bulging with drawings, notes and hand sketches, newly commissioned photographs of the fine surface detail and texture of some of his surviving buildings, and perhaps most interestingly, retracing some of his trips to America, where he researched the work of Modernist masters like Mies van der Rohe and Paul Rudolph, among others. 

He added: ‘My overwhelming feeling is that he was one of our city fathers and without his legacy, many of the good things in modern Birmingham would not have happened. Perversely, while he treasured his buildings, he was not sentimental and would have been quite excited by the notion of replacing them with something new after a few decades.’ 

Glenn Howells of Birmingham-based Glenn Howells Architects said: ‘I bought one of Madin’s 1970s houses which I’ve restored. His work is a catalogue of Modernism and over such a long period of time, covered many different styles and shows many international influences.’

He emulated work from global references - especially North American

‘He had an ambition beyond that of a regional practitioner. He was the high point of the 20th century for the city.’

Aidan Ridyard of Broadway Malyan said: ‘It is sad news. Just about everyone in the city can claim a link of some sort to his studio or his work. His colleagues have produced some fine work which is still not really appreciated for its quality or its aspiration.’

Philip Singleton of Facilitate Urban and formerly of Birmingham City Council’s regeneration team said: ‘He made the single biggest impact on architecture in Birmingham in the latter part of the 20th century. He emulated work from global references - especially North American. 

Few produced the level of quality he did

‘Many of his commercial buildings do remain. I lived for a while in a house designed by him which was thoughtfully designed and well put-together, and responded especially well to its landscape context.’

Ken Shuttleworth of Make, said: ‘When I was looking for my year out position in 1974 I applied to John Madin. He was the best architect in town and so, as I had considered staying in Birmingham, he was the natural choice. I still think the Central Library is misunderstood and is a great building. As is the Alpha tower which is still among the best in Birmingham.

I am indebted to John Madin for showing me the way and pointing me in the right direction

‘Sadly I never met him as I was never asked to interview so I went to Fosters instead. I had followed his work as a child as he was a man of vision and was instrumental in recreating Birmingham as a modern exciting city after the war. Growing up there was the trigger which encouraged me to become an architect so I am indebted to John Madin for showing me the way and pointing me in the right direction.’

John Prevc of Make added: ‘Once a star of the Birmingham architectural scene, Madin was an out and out modernist, which for Birmingham, you might have thought was not unusual but few produced the level of quality he did.  He should be re- evaluated and perhaps the book which came out last year on his work and now his death might possibly kick start this process.’

Kevin Singh, head of school at Birmingham School of Architecture, said: ‘The School is saddened to hear of John Madin’s passing and send their condolences to his friends and family.

‘In a city that has at times struggled with its 1960s Architectural reputation Madin’s work was always something that both staff and students could take pride in and point to. The recent mongraph of his work was the inspiration for the School in setting our BA students the brief of a John Madin Archive to celebrate his work. The results were fascinating, revealing that our students found his work inspiring and still relevant. Some of the best proposals offered contemporary reinterpretations of his work which in themselves revealed how ahead of his time he was.’

Ian Standing, director at Birmingham-based Associated Architects, added: ‘Madin was highly significant in bringing modernism to Birmingham in the 1950s. His early work on the Calthorpe estate halted decades of neglect, leading to its regeneration incorporating a unique concern for landscape: while much of this remains, the subsequent  loss of so many signature buildings may well preclude a proper appreciation of the city’s most influential mid-20th Century architect.’

Madin retired from his design group in 1976 but continued to work as John Madin Chartered Architect.

Birmingham Central Library by John Madin

Source: Architectural Press Archive RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Birmingham Central Library by John Madin




Readers' comments (3)

  • John Madin
    Throughout his career John Madin made buildings of a consistently high standard however, it is only in recent years that we have begun to appreciate his enormous contribution to the modern built environment.

    Birmingham can be proud to have not only been the city where Madin was born and grew up in, but also where he lived and practiced. During his long career he worked through several styles including Postmodernism as exampled by Metropolitan House at Five Ways, Brutalism as the fated Central Library at Paradise Circus, Modernism as the now demolished Post and Mail Tower at Colmore Circus and a Swedish Style as exampled by the numerous dwellings and offices on the Calthorpe Estate.

    To my mind, his greatest work was the Edgbaston master plan developed for Calthorpe with whom he clearly established the most enviable of working relationships. The result is that within a few minutes of Birmingham City Centre are hundreds of buildings, each one a delight to look upon, live or work in. Anyone who has been fortunate to live in a Madin designed dwelling will pay tribute to his design excellence.
    Simon Chapman

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  • A 2011 eBook celebrating the life and work of John Madin is available as a free PDF download from http://www.john-madin.info - it has 132 pages with numerous photos and plans and would be invaluable for anyone interested in further reading or students of 20th century architecture.

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  • The most fitting tribute would be to retain his library building, find a use for it (Tate Birmingham?) and thus provide a foil for the puerile nonsense built to replace it.

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