Glenn Howells remembers Jim Roberts, the architect best known for Birmingham’s Rotunda, who has died aged 97
I met Jim Roberts a few times in connection with his most famous building, Birmingham’s Rotunda, about 20 years ago, and was always struck by his energy and passion for architecture.
Jim was born on 29 April 1922 in King’s Heath, Birmingham, and followed his father, Ernest S Roberts, into architecture, studying at the Birmingham School of Architecture where he later lectured. Throughout the Second World War, he served in the Home Guard and emerged from the war into the boom-and-bust times of post-war architecture – a time when everyone had ambition, but nobody had any cash.
His break came when he answered a Birmingham City Council advert for an architect and won three schemes in Birmingham as part of Herbert Manzoni’s sweeping new inner ring road scheme. One of these was the Rotunda which was located on an awkward triangular site where several new roads met. Jim took on the challenge and designed a circular marker building with vertical emphasis, offering people a 360-degree view across the city – not dissimilar to the view he had enjoyed in the war as he looked out for enemy bombers from the top of Birmingham’s Council House.
Having studied in the classical Beaux-Arts tradition, Jim said he felt it was in him to do something ‘big and bold’ and when people told him he couldn’t do it, his reply was ‘the impossible just takes a bit longer’.
The legacy of planning and buildings he produced shaped Birmingham
Jim set up James A Roberts Associates which eventually took over the top two floors of the Rotunda. The legacy of planning and buildings he produced during this time shaped Birmingham and other cities for many years to come.
These include another city icon, St John’s Beacon tower or Radio City Tower in Liverpool (1969), The Belfry Hotel and Golf Complex in Warwickshire, Solihull Library and Police Station, and the Mander Shopping Centre in Wolverhampton (1968). In his home town of Birmingham, he produced the Ringway Centre (1962), offices for Triplex Glass (now Pilkington) (1966), Albany Hotel (1962), Bethel Presbyterian Church of Wales (1968), Scala House (1964), The Sentinels (1971), Albany Banqueting Suite (1975), 43 Temple Row (1980) and of course the Rotunda (1965). Jim was also involved in several renovation projects including the Grade I-listed West Bromwich Manor House and the Grade II*-listed Soho House, Birmingham.
Liverpool’s Radio City [originally the St John’s Beacon] by James A Roberts
I first met Jim when our proposals to refurbish the Grade II-listed Rotunda were questioned by a number of heritage organisations. Jim was then in his 80s, and I managed to track him down to his house on the edge of the New Forest where he lived with his snow-white husky.
To my delight, he couldn’t have been more supportive of the changes we proposed and was generous enough to say that he had always wanted to do it that way, but it had just not been technically possible in the 1960s. He actually produced the original perspective drawings of the Rotunda which looked uncannily like our proposals. From this point on, the project was set and Jim remained a strong ally throughout.
I saw him for the last time in 2008 at the opening of the refurbished Rotunda where he was full of praise and compliments for what we had done, graciously saying ‘it was the work of every generation of architects to reinterpret and build on that of the previous one’.
Jim had amazing energy but also, as I heard from several people who knew him, he had a deeply generous and caring side. In speaking to his family, it is clear that even in his later years he was still working and having ideas, was still passionate about buildings and the built environment.