Com­ment Icons that de­fined a mod­ern city

Birmingham Post - - FEATURE -

En­hanced by coloured, re­cessed bal­conies run­ning up each cor­ner, it is topped off by a sculp­tural se­ries of drums car­ry­ing the com­mu­ni­ca­tion dishes and a crane for lift­ing heavy equip­ment. The tower still pro­vides a high-speed data ser­vice.

The New Street Sta­tion Sig­nal Box in Nav­i­ga­tion Street is also a purely func­tional build­ing.

Of out­stand­ing ar­chi­tec­tural merit and recog­nised by its grade II-listed sta­tus, it is also the only ex­am­ple of a pure Bru­tal­ist build­ing we have left since the de­struc­tion of the Cen­tral Li­brary and the NatWest Tower.

There are many mis­con­cep­tions about the word ‘Bru­tal­ism’ which is sim­ply an ar­chi­tec­tural style fea­tur­ing bold, struc­turally in­no­va­tive forms that use raw con­crete as their pri­mary ma­te­rial.

Bru­tal­ist build­ings of­ten re­veal the means of their con­struc­tion through un­fin­ished sur­faces that bear the im­prints of the moulds that shaped them.

The name is at­trib­uted to Swis­sFrench ar­chi­tect Le Cor­bus­ier who spec­i­fied bé­ton brut (con­crete that is raw or un­fin­ished) in his de­signs.

The an­gli­ci­sa­tion of the term ‘brut’ into ‘Bru­tal­ism’ has led to its neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion.

Walk­ing around the build­ing, its sculp­tural pres­ence and vi­tal­ity de­fine it as a se­ri­ous work of ar­chi­tec­tural art.

The com­po­si­tion of con­certina- like, tri­an­gu­lar faceted con­crete walls, a de­tail which even ex­tends to the bound­ary wall on Nav­i­ga­tion Street, is lay­ered with beau­ti­fully pro­por­tioned win­dows.

Ev­ery view of the build­ing re­veals a new ar­range­ment of well­pro­por­tioned rec­tan­gu­lar shapes.

Viewed from Hill Street, there is the de­light­ful punc­tu­a­tion of a bright red spi­ral stair­case.

It is topped off by a vast, plain square roof which bal­ances the whole com­po­si­tion to perfection.

De­signed by Bick­nell & Hamil­ton and WR Healey, and com­pleted in 1965, it now con­trasts sharply with the glitz of the new Grand Cen­tral.

It is still the home of one of the “city’s most vi­tal and in­tense in­fra­struc­ture sys­tems, serv­ing the busiest rail in­ter­change in the UK” but in a cou­ple of years’ time it will cease to func­tion as a sig­nal box.

Now Net­work Rail is be­gin­ning the quest to find a fu­ture role for it.

Could it be a gallery, an arts space, or even a mu­seum?

These build­ings are such out­stand­ing icons of their time – and of our city – that we must not let them be lost like so many oth­ers now swept away.

Modernism and Bru­tal­ism were im­por­tant move­ments which con­trib­uted an im­mense amount to what we recog­nise as great mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign to­day.

We must not dis­miss them lightly, they are hon­est, have heart and soul and they were built for the pur­pose which their form ex­presses.

These build­ings arose to meet the grow­ing needs of a grow­ing city.

Growth which, even as they were un­der con­struc­tion, was be­ing sti­fled by cen­tral Govern­ment leg­is­la­tion which sought to re­strain the growth of Birm­ing­ham’s pop­u­la­tion and em­ploy­ment po­ten­tial in favour of the then stag­nant north.

Let’s cel­e­brate these build­ings which rep­re­sent an im­por­tant pe­riod of Birm­ing­ham’s his­tory.

Dur­ing Birm­ing­ham Her­itage Week 2018 (from Septem­ber 6-16), we are cel­e­brat­ing our 20th cen­tury land­marks by or­gan­is­ing a se­ries of walks to look at the build­ings from this era. Full de­tails can be found at : birm­ing­hamher­itage­week.co.uk

Join us next month to ex­plore how the ar­chi­tects of this pe­riod recog­nised the im­por­tance of the space in which they placed their build­ings.

Mary Keat­ing rep­re­sents Bru­ti­ful Birm­ing­ham, which cam­paigns for the preser­va­tion of the city’s best

late 20th cen­tury build­ings

They are hon­est, have heart and soul and they were built for the pur­pose which their form ex­presses

> New Street Sig­nal Box – a Bru­tal­ist clas­sic > The Royal Mail sort­ing of­fice, now the Mail­box

> The BT Tower, which opened in 1967

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