Magazine article The Spectator

Secret Worlds

Magazine article The Spectator

Secret Worlds

Article excerpt

Don't Mention The Dome! Criticism of the plastic tent at Greenwich is so constant and shrill that one almost feels sorry for the organisers. Almost - for we are soon reminded of the wicked folly of squandering so much public money on something so essentially trivial and mediocre when reading, say, of the theatres which are closing all over Britain for want of a little subsidy or, closer to the home of the Dome, how the Greenwich Observatory - something that represents a major British achievement and gift to the world - has now closed. I thought of the absurdity of the D*** yet again last weekend, for I was in Birmingham, the city that genuinely wanted to be the home of the national Millennium celebration - and deserved to be - until overruled by metropolitan arrogance and myopia.

Birmingham is not the most likely subject for the non-motorist except as an object lesson. More than any other city (and there was certainly competition), Birmingham attempted to turn itself into a British Detroit. It worshipped the motorcar, remodelled the city for the driver rather than the pedestrian, and ringed the city centre by a cordon sanitaire of motorways, underpasses and roundabouts. Even in 1960, at the height of his optimism about the new architecture, Ian Nairn could write in his book on Britain's Changing Towns that `ring roads are powerful instruments. for good or ill, and what they can do in architectural and social terms is, I am sure, quite unappreciated by those who draw them so blithely on a map purely as a means for relieving traffic congestion. Birmingham will, I think, be all right, but it has taken some fearful risks. Splitting the Civic centre was one of them...' Well, poor Birmingham wasn't all right; the city became a paradigm of all that was drabbest, nastiest and most squalid about car worship and comprehensive redevelopment.

Yet I like the place. Partly because the good humour of the citizens, as well as both some fine and some vigorously ordinary architecture, has survived the visions of modern architects and planners, and partly because the authorities themselves have not only recognised their mistakes but are doing something to rectify them. Far from encouraging commercial growth, the ring road now constricts the centre and creates wastelands just outside, so there is that inspired plan to remove much of it, on the principle that, if building roads just generates more traffic to fill them, so, if the roads are taken away, the traffic will disappear. And the dreadful roundabouts with their dank, frightening pedestrian underpasses are being rebuilt, so that cars go below and people are restored to the level, where they belong.

I was in Birmingham to see the splendid exhibition about the city's greatest artist, Edward Burne-Jones. The Art Gallery faces the Town Hall, a Corinthian temple designed by Joseph Hansom, inventor of the eponymous cab, and was designed to form part of a civic centre. This centre of culture and learning was spoiled in the 1960s when the neighbouring library was demolished and the ring road cut through behind, but now it is reviving. The public spaces are now enhanced by new sculpture - some good, some execrable but all having a positive effect -- while the civic zone has now been extended across the wretched road to reconnect with the council house and Hall of Memory built in the 1920s. …

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