Comment Icons that defined a modern city
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