Have we really always hated modernism? | Opinion


It was the letter from the Guardian that I found first. Someone wrote to tell Olly Wainwright it was all well and good that he was mourning the loss of John Madin’s ‘old brutalist library’ in Birmingham, but he didn’t get to visit the building, with its ” creaking escalators and crumbling concrete” to study for his A levels. He caught my eye because I had.

In the 1970s, a few years after the building opened, and long before its core was filled with retail businesses, I spent time there studying for my A-levels. And I loved it! The interior had a sophisticated style that made the younger one feel privileged to be there.

I felt the same about much of Birmingham. I remember a school photography project where I focused on the amazing sculptural columns at the base of Richard Seifert MTB tour, headquarters of the regional television company. I didn’t know it was by Seifert, or even who Seifert was, but I thought the building was amazing.

I had also taken a school trip to an architect’s studio at the top of the Rotonde. As I learned from Olly’s Keeper’s Coin, it must have been the offices of James Roberts, the architect of the building. Roberts designed another of my favorite buildings in Birmingham, the Ringway on Smallbrook Queensway. I nominated it once for a Urbanism Academy Award but apparently it is now threatened with demolition.

I wasn’t the only one at the time who liked these buildings

Roberts had planned a revolving restaurant at the top of the Rotunda, and when that proved impractical, he instead took the top two floors for his own offices. It was the most exciting place imaginable for my schoolboy self, full of amazing building models. This is one of the reasons I got into this business.

Robert Adam argued in a column for this publication a few weeks ago that architects, considering themselves part of the avant-garde, have deliberately designed buildings that the public does not like. Faced with clear evidence of what the public loves – he didn’t use the word ‘traditional’, but we know what he meant – architects have continued to design buildings that only others really like. architects.

Robert puts a 70 year time scale on this, so he definitely includes the Brutalist buildings of Birmingham. And yet, I was not the only one at the time to like these buildings. As someone who grew up in Birmingham, I remember when it was built people were excited about the brutalist city centre. The good people of Birmingham, including my working-class parents, were incredibly proud of the way the city had been transformed. Visiting parents were taken on a trip to the new (and now demolished) Bull Ring Center and modern wonders downtown.

When I was researching Coventry’s post-war redevelopment a few years ago, I encountered the same reaction. The exhibition of the new city center entitled Coventry of tomorrow, towards a beautiful city, which took place before the old city center was destroyed by German bombing, had been visited by 5,000 people, as well as organized school trips for every child in the city. The reception was again enthusiastic, the public flocking to the lectures of William Holford and Thomas Sharpe. Modernism was popular, it was considered, well… “modern” and that was a good thing at the time.

They had been sold a bright, shiny future and it had turned into the grim reality of an underground passage on a damp winter evening.

Robert may be right to say that the public fell in love with modernism. I certainly saw that with my parents in Birmingham. But that’s because modernism failed, or at least modernist urbanism failed, which is an important distinction.

It is not that modernism was forced upon what Robert calls a “stubbornly conventional public that has failed, after at least three generations, to catch up.” This is because the public felt cheated and misled. They had been sold a bright future and it had turned into the grim reality of an underground passage on a rainy winter’s evening.

The desire for traditionalism is an understandable response to this. I myself have argued against modernist town planning and in favor of the principles of town planning, which I would characterize as timeless rather than traditional. But what I take away from this story is that the public is perfectly willing to embrace modern architecture. The concern, as Olly points out, is that modernism is not being replaced by traditional architecture, but by bland, glass-covered buildings anywhere, which my schoolboy would never have been enthused about.

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Rozella J. Cook