Birmingham is going through a period of immense change but it would be untrue to suggest that it is unprecedented.
James Hobbs wrote the song I can’t find Brummagem in 1816 bemoaning the city’s constant state of redevelopment and it seems we are still in the middle of it over 200 years later.
Birmingham's unique tradition of forever beginning again is founded in optimism, ambition and a belief in a better future but the tradeoff is living in a city where nothing lasts long and everything exists in a constant state of flux.
Hoardings around building sites move around daily and pedestrians wholly reliant on Google Maps to navigate are infuriated that their most up to date information is not quite up to date enough. Visitors to the city will not recognise parts of it they saw 10 months ago let alone 10 years ago. Brummies will no doubt recognise the wisdom in James Hobbs’ poem:
But I set out for home at last
To good old Brummagem.
But ev'ry place is altered so
Now there's hardly a place I know
Which fills my heart with grief and woe
For I can't find Brummagem.
When our immediate environment is destroyed and renewed in continuous redevelopment and regeneration we lose familiar landmarks that give us a sense that this is still our home. Flux is not conducive to a sense of belonging or identity. From an anthropological perspective perhaps we have lost our totems that represent Brummies as a group or community in our desire to reinvent the city.
The brutalist Central Library is perhaps one such totem. The mourning by some of what was an awful building has more recently turned into a weird fetishisation of it. The appearance of T-shirts, artworks and concrete nik-naks bearing its image are evidence of its enduring legacy in the minds of Brummies. It has become more iconic since its demolition than it ever was while it was still standing. Perhaps this is a reaction to our relentless journey forward; Madin’s library is a a martyr on the altar of progress and those who continue their veneration of it do so in part as a rejection of gentrification and a desire to rediscover an authentic Birmingham.
In selecting our totems we are reacting to a need to be differentiated, with differentiation being a prerequisite of identity. The old library was certainly unique but so is our new one. We try to create new totems in our descriptions of what is uniquely iconic in our city. The Town Hall, the new Library and the Rotunda, perhaps the most physically totem-like structure in the city, show that we do try to ground some collective municipal identity in our architecture.
In the past a local or statutory listing has often been meaningless in the face of the wrecking ball, so if our history of redevelopment has shown that our buildings are assumed to be temporary, how do we revive what we have lost and restore that idea of permanence that is a prerequisite of enduring identity?
When I lived in Padua I noticed that some of the pedestrianised areas of the city centre had irregular marble lines on the pavement which separated larger block paved areas nearest buildings from more traditional Sampietrini in the middle of the street.
There were inscriptions on the marble lines. The lines trace the footprint of demolished buildings that were further forward than the present ones. The inscriptions explain what the building was that previously occupy the site, when it was built & when it was demolished. Some of these trace buildings that were demolished and replaced in the Fascist period, adding a certain poignancy, almost as if the lines are a memorial to the architectural victims of a reprehensible ideology as well as a similarly destructive planning policy. The pavements preserve some record of the city's architectural history.
Birmingham City Council has recently announced £25m funding to facilitate welcome improvements to the public realm across much of the city centre. Given that New Street has seen more than its fair share of redevelopment, could the new design showcase some of the history of the street like this?
By firmly grounding the design in Birmingham's history, the public realm can increase people's awareness of the street's interesting past, better appreciate the value of what remains of the old and how those conditions influenced the design of the buildings that arose later. Perhaps it isn't through building the new but celebrating the old and feeling part of a bigger picture of cultural heritage that we create our sense of collective identity.
I wonder if we can take the opportunity to revive the memory of the grand buildings that we hastily demolished in the hope that we understand and appreciate the value of our shared history as we move relentlessly forward. After all, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
I posted many of the thoughts above on twitter and subsequently attended the Martineau Galleries consultation. The team there seemed quite interested by the idea. Tracing the heritage of the area through the design of the public realm would be highly effective here because the new masterplan for the area proposes new buildings whose footprints will closely align to the Victorian blocks that existed before the Square was built.
It was encouraging to see the idea referenced in the Martineau design brief that was submitted as part of an outline planning application. The idea is sadly only 'considered' rather than something they presently wish to pursue more seriously, but I was pleased to see it there nonetheless.