Buildings That Changed the Face of Birmingham; in the Second of His Two-Part Insight into the History of the City's Buildings, Matthew Goer of Associated Architects, Looks at the Major Projects That Shaped Birmingham since the Second World War
Byline: Matthew Goer
1950s Birmingham Ring Road During the Second World War, the city was hit hard during the Birmingham Blitz and was ripe for a radical reconstruction. Herbert Manzoni, City Surveyor of Birmingham and visionary engineer, took stock of the destruction and the anticipated growth of car ownership following the war. In his city-wide reconstruction plan he envisaged a wide, sweeping boulevard lined with pavements and arcades of shops, running around the city centre. His plans were bold and forward-thinking; ground-breaking in engineering terms, taking influences from major cities around the world.
Manzoni held no sentiment towards the buildings of the past and tore through historic parts of the city, with a vision of improving Birmingham for future generations. This was before the days of building conservation and resulted in the loss of many much-loved Victorian buildings, such as the Central Library.
Construction of the first section of Manzoni's inner ring road began at Smallbrook Queensway in 1957, a sweeping boulevard from Suffolk Street to New Street Station. However, Manzoni's original concept was abandoned after a visit to the freeways of Los Angeles and, coupled with outside political influence, the remaining ring-road became the urban motorway that we see in parts running through the city today, with complete separation of car and pedestrian. The entire ring road was officially opened by the Queen in 1971.
Far from opening up the city, Manzoni inadvertently created the city's restrictive and much-maligned 'concrete collar', which stifled development and pedestrian connectivity until it was broken most notably in 2003 with the demolition of Masshouse Circus.
1960s The Bull Ring At the head of Digbeth High Street stands St Martin's Church in an area that has held a special significance within Birmingham's history as the centre of the city's markets since the 12th century. It was natural that the location was chosen by the Victorians as the site of the city's first official centralised market in the 19th century. With the contemporary city council keen to construct an iconic building in the heart of the city, it was decided that this would be the location for the Bull Ring, the UK's first city-centre indoor shopping centre.
Completed in 1964, the Bull Ring was a striking modernist building, with its iconic Bull insignia, illuminated advertising and bold signage. It embodied the ideals of its era and represented Birmingham reinventing itself as a modern city. Unfortunately, it was also an example of short-sighted town planning without any contextual thinking. The pedestrian was subservient to the car; approaching the building on foot required the navigation of a convoluted network of underpasses and bridges.
Like many 1960s buildings, the Bull Ring failed to meet the test of time. Its stark concrete facade and complex pedestrian access routes deterred shoppers, while failing technology and the prohibitive rental cost of retail space led many tenants to find cheaper accommodation elsewhere in the city.
Far from being the iconic centrepiece that was originally hoped, the Bull Ring became an example to many of Birmingham as a grey concrete jungle, chocked by roads and motorways. Less than 20 years after it was opened, redevelopment designs were already being drawn-up.
1970s Central Library Since the growth of the industrial city, the public library has been a key component of the Victorian city's civic and cultural heart. Birmingham was no exception with its dramatic Central Library, designed by architect John Henry Chamberlain.
However this Central Library, was d e m o l - ished in 1974 to make way for Manzoni's route for the Inner Ring-Road and the political will to build a modern library. Architect John Madin, was commissioned to design its replacement.
Madin's Central Library was conceived as the centrepiece of what would become an ambitious civic centre - including an exhibition space, lecture halls, drama centre and athletics institute, as well as a major transport hub. …