On Sunday I attended one of the events that made up part of this year’s Birmingham Heritage Week. Brutiful Birmingham have recently launched their first book, ‘Birmingham The Brutiful Years‘, a celebration of the Brutalist architecture that abounded upon the city in the 50s, 60s and 1970s, some of which is now protected, others which are still under threat of demolition and redevelopment. The book is a love letter to these buildings, seen as the exciting future at the time of conception, as innovative, space age and ultra modernist, but now having to fight for their right to be, as the age of glass boxes threatens to erode all that went before it.
The book itself is a collection of photos, both new and archive, as well as essays on Brutalism from the pages of the Birmingham Post, written by The Brutiful Action Group founders, Mary Keating, Jenny Marris and John Bell. Their passion for Brutalist buildings grew from a fight to save the Birmingham Central Library, a fight that went to the wire and was almost won. Since then, the group have strived to both hilight the beauty and uniqueness of the Brutalist buildings that Birmingham has in abundance, and also to save these buildings for the future generations they were so inspired by.
I myself have a love/hate relationship with Brutalism. My personal ‘thing’ is Art Deco, and Brutalism often seems the antiphesis of that beautifully streamlined, gleaming glamorous style. But in fact, there is a natural progression from the curves and ocean liner styles of art deco to the straight lines and concrete blocks of brutalism. There is also the social consequence, the flare and jazz age beauty of the 1920s and 30s seemed out of place where buildings needed to go up quickly, on the ruins of former bombsites. In addition, after World War 2, it is so obvious why people would want to look forward with their ideas, rather than looking back to pre war styles, and brutalism was a response to this, fresh, stark and ultra modern.
I hate the concept that new ideas have to sweep all that went before it away, and just as many wonderful Art Deco buildings have disappeared in Birmingham, we are now seeing this with Brutalism, and this is surely wrong. A modern city can survive with all its heritage existing side by side, the baby doesn’t need to thrown out with the bath water in the name of progression, and the work of The Brutiful Action Group is helping to ensure that the work of John Madin, Graham Witherington and many more will live to fight another day.