Back To The Future
A forward looking journal about past-futures, modernism, architecture, and town-planning in Birmingham.
Risograph printed, 18x24cm, Swiss binding with dayglo cover.
Limited edition of 200 copies.
by James Dunn
Back to the Future explores the future of the built environment, and how we may rekindle the collective imagination that ignited the modernist movement, to envision how Birmingham might take shape over the next century, longer. This publication comes at an historic moment in the gestation of the spatial vision for the Central Birmingham area for the next two decades. On 26th March, the first round of consultation concluded on Birmingham City Council’s Our Future City Plan: Central Birmingham 2040. This document will replace the current Big City Plan, setting the direction for local planning policy in the city centre. As we look to the future of this City, it is a good time to take a beat, and consider how radical architecture and planning can help to solve some of today’s problems. The present document demonstrates that many people who have settled in Birmingham take pride and inspiration from its post-war architectural heritage. For example, Simon Jones recounts his experiences as a town planner working in Alpha Tower in the early noughties, when Gareth Gates was on Pop Idol, and truly anything seemed possible in a city that always turns towards the future.
Post-war architectural modernism is elevated not merely for its simple, bold forms and often monolithic, cathedral-like proportions (see Luke Sewell’s piece, in which the case is made for a close union between the Christian church and architectural modernism). It also embodies a utopian ideal of a better and more just future. As Chris Tomlinson observes within these pages, the architectural logic of modernist housing is the physical counterpart to legal equality, which in the social democratic era included a right to housing. There are some fine examples of modernist and brutalist buildings in Birmingham, of all manner of uses from the parking of cars to the worship of deities. Gasometer Blog maps Birmingham City Centre’s multi-storey car parks, calling for a re-evaluation of these structures before it is too late. Ian Francis provides a cultural history of Spaghetti Junction, reflecting on its abiding appeal to filmmakers, and the myths surrounding it. Meanwhile, The Reverend Canon Martin Stephenson describes the design journey of St Peter’s Church, Hall Green, a starkly brutalist church building.
On the other hand, architectural modernism and post-war town planning have left a highly unsatisfactory legacy on the city. Sixty years ago, the private car was regarded as the future of personal transportation. Highways were carved through the city centre and suburbs, laying waste to the pre-existing Victorian urban fabric and splitting apart previously close-knit communities. At the same time, terraces were being obliterated in favour of high-rises, some of which continue to be prized by residents (such as Highpoint, which Mary Keating shows us on her tour of John Madin’s built legacy in Edgbaston) but many of which are decrepit. In 2021, neither of these aspects of the modernist vision for the future retain many adherents.
It is necessary to align architectural modernism with what, in 2021, is considered to represent the future of urbanism in Birmingham. One such view of the future is a more human-centred approach to urban planning, making our cities healthier places to live and work. Clearly, the future of Birmingham is also greener, with the internal combustion engine relegated to an embarrassing past. Looking forwards, Itzio Barberena’s piece imagines a future city in which the urban built form merges with the natural landscape, and its inhabitants are detached from belongings and property, existing as nomads.
The conditions should also be created for greater community-led development, making it easier for local people to create spaces that meet the needs of their community. Sean Farmelo writes about the experiences of Stirchley Co-operative Development, in bringing forward proposals for a mixed-use scheme on Pershore Road, creating retail units for worker co-ops and 39 affordable homes. I hope that leafing through these pages will inspire reflection on how architectural modernism can be re-imagined for the future, used to solve the problems that the city faces in 2021. I hope this journal will provoke you to dream bigger about the future of Birmingham, this place we are re-creating together.
by Joseph Lilley
I was approached by James and Jodie to collaborate on a printed journal about modernist architecture in Birmingham. This wasn’t to be a standard academic journal, but more of an open, creative, and accessible response, with an open call for contributions in any form that can be printed. The response to this open call was fantastic, which is a neat reflection of the attitude that people have towards their city, one of care and consideration. The excitement for the journal grew as we pored over the submissions, including contributions from some people I personally have a lot of admiration for. James has already commented on the written contributions, but I would like to emphasise here the quality and creativity of the visual content. Work came in from photographers, artists, illustrators and film makers - the list is long and I urge you to look up their varied and rich bodies of work.
We are extremely grateful to everyone that contributed to the project (a list of acknowledgments can be found on p.94), for the time and effort put into the work which was given to us without any payment. In the time that has passed since the open call for this project, Pershore Street Car Park, which features in Considering Car Parks (p10) has already been demolished to make way for the development of the Birmingham Smithfield Masterplan. The building was captured mid-demolition by photographer Concrete Rythms (p69).
Birmingham certainly lives up to it’s motto of “Forward” when it comes to the unabating cycle of demolition and rebuilding of its civic architecture. For a lot of us the demolition of landmark Birmingham buildings creates a great sense of loss and frustration, and it is hard to make sense of, given the widely recognised architectural merit they attract outside of the Birmingham regeneration bubble. I can recall seeing John Madin’s Central Library being listed as one of the treasures of Brutalism in a pyramid of books proudly displayed at the entrance to Waterstones on New Street, only to exit the shop and see the dozers devouring that very building.
It will be an interesting exercise for our future selves to look back at this journal and reflect upon what changes came to pass, given the impending climate crisis, the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, the housing crisis for young people and booming housing market, the relaxing of planning regulations to facilitate cramped ex-office block housing, and the constant state of concrete flux in our city.
A collaborative project, with funding from Civic Square.