There was an honesty to Britain’s mid-20th century flirtation with Brutalist architecture. Constructed from raw concrete, brick, steel and glass, the strong, angular features of Brutalist buildings allow the structure to be seen, unlike most contemporary architecture, where plaster and rendering covers up the framework.
In Birmingham, many cutting-edge Brutalist designs were commissioned and built in the 1960s, to replace buildings destroyed during World War II, and to clear substandard housing. But Birmingham has been reluctant to recognise the quality and heritage of its own architecture, says Mary Keating of the Brutiful Birmingham action group, which campaigns for its preservation.
“The Brutalist period has generally been denigrated,” says Mary. “Terms such as ‘concrete jungle’ have not helped its reputation.” The varying quality of building materials and techniques used during the 1960s haven’t helped either, but this has led to the entire Brutalist legacy being “tarred with the same brush.”
“The destruction of buildings of this period is rife across the country. Our mission is to raise awareness of Brutalist architecture and how it was innovatory, honest and representative of the progressive and optimistic mood of the time.”
That’s in contrast to a lot of current architecture – often a nostalgic pastiche or clad in bland, corporate grey, she says. “Our city and townscapes are enhanced by retaining the best of every period of architecture.”
Magnificent brutes and where to find them
Signal Box, New Street Station
Now Grade II listed, this unashamedly functional signal box was built in 1964 to house the maze of bulky and sensitive electronic equipment needed to run train services at the busy New Street station, requiring protection from direct sunlight. Designed by Bicknell and Hamilton, it is “reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright,” finds Mary. “The strong horizontal statement of the exterior is complimented by vertical windows and height variation at the top of the building.”
Ringway Centre, Smallbrook Queensway
The Ringway Centre, just 10 minutes walk from Hotel Indigo – Birmingham was designed by the architect James Roberts as part of the city’s Inner Ring Road system. Now occupied by a combination of offices and shops, it “combines the virtues of concrete, steel and glass with decorative panels and uplighters fit to compete with the ornate decoration of Birmingham’s best Victorian buildings,” says Mary. “Its crescent sweep defines the south side of the street.”
Corporation Square, Corporation Street
Completed 1966 and designed by Frederick Gibberd, it’s now called simply the Square, a major shopping centre but “with a central open space, a haven of peace away from the bustle and noise of the city centre,” says Mary. “The horizontal sweep of The Square’s Portland stone façade is rhythmically punctuated at critical intervals by vertical slit windows, with the ground-floor shops typically protected by a canopy.”
Quayside Tower, Broad Street
“This combination of a podium building and a tower block is typical of 1960s architecture,” says Mary, and was designed by John Madin and completed in 1965. “Twenty-one bas-relief concrete panels adorn the first floor, providing fascinating contemporary decoration to the simple clarity of the building’s overall design. These panels, each of which is different, were created by William Mitchell, famous for the doors of Liverpool Cathedral.”
Repertory Theatre, Broad Street
The Birmingham Rep’s startling 900-seat home, designed by Graham Winteringham, won a Royal Institute of British architects award the year after it was completed in 1971 and became home to equally innovative local theatre. “The concrete and glass façade features an inverted arcade design, giving plenty of light to the foyer areas with their cantilevered staircases,” says Mary. “The auditorium itself, unusually, consists of a single rake, without a central aisle, balconies, boxes or pillars, giving the space a sense of intimacy.”