David Chapman, Professor of Planning and Development at Birmingham City University
When Herbert Manzoni led the redevelopment of Birmingham in the years after WW2 he was one of the most enthusiastic followers of new Modernist ideas about the future shape of the City. These ideas began in Europe in the early twentieth century as ideological and academic responses to the squalor and monotony of many nineteenth century industrial cities. In some ways the ideas sprang from the same concerns that inspired arts and crafts thinking in Britain, however instead of celebrating the arts and crafts of individuals as the means of production, modernism celebrated the machine.
But for WW2 modernist ideas might gradually have developed in the commercial and industrial sector but in the face of huge reconstruction challenges and immense scarcity of material and labour resource they were harnessed to the reconstruction challenges faced by many towns and cities. In the Midlands, Birmingham and Coventry are prime examples.
Today, as Stacey Barnfield (Editor of Birmingham Post) says, all of us who live in the region do understand what the effects of those reconstruction efforts were and want to avoid making the same mistakes again. To do this it is critical to analyse what went wrong in depth, exploring not simply the physical problems and defects that occurred but the ideas that underpinned them.
In the immediate post war period modernist ideas gained real traction politically and professionally, although it is doubtful whether they engaged with people more widely in any meaningful way. Even if they did the debate would probably have been much more about infrastructure and buildings than about the kind of places being created. But the real effect of the new thinking was to transform the character of our towns and cities. This was almost inevitable because of one of the most powerful ideas behind Modernist thinking was the almost total rejection of places as they existed with what Rowe & Koetter described as ‘…absolute detachment, symbolic or physical, from any aspects of existing (built) context…’
Admittedly, this rejection of the existing historic built environment was driven by high ideals for a new egalitarian society and a return to nature, but the rejection of ‘what is’ seems curious. The notion that the existing context was morally or physically contaminated had a powerful influence, and this fostered a vision in which buildings would be ‘…raised above the ground (with) as little contact as possible with the potentially reclaimable earth…’ All distinctiveness in buildings would be avoided in favour of an ‘International’ style. The ideas of Peter and Alison Smithson about their plans for redevelopment clearly illustrate the mindset, for example;
“The ‘elements’ can expect little help from their surroundings in terms of environment but must by their own unblemishable newness carry the whole load of responsibility for renewal in themselves’ (Smithson and Smithson, 1967, p. 27).
This privileging of object buildings in flowing natural space represented ‘…nothing short of a demolition of public life and decorum (reducing) the public realm, the traditional world of visible civics to an amorphic remainder…’ (Rowe & Koetter, 1984 p. 63). It also brought about real separations between people and between places, including;
• Separation of people from the ground, with consequences for families and communities.
• Separation of vehicles and people, with impacts on the landscape and streetscape, and reduction in local accessibility and identity.
• Separation of jobs from homes, and producers from consumers.
Have we really learned the lessons needed to avoid making equally flawed decisions? Do we really care enough about the qualities that make places successful for their residents and visitors? Do we really value sufficiently the assets of the city, including the small scale features and the remains of all preceding eras? Do we engage everyone deeply enough in discussions about future options? Do we take sufficient care to value places; their qualities and assets; so that they can be built upon and not simply rejected?
Are we, like the modernists, too ready to sweep away a whole era of our heritage? Are we too eager to sweep away as many traces of the post war era as post war planners tried to sweep away Victorian Birmingham? The case of Birmingham’s brutally modern Central Library, as highlighted by Allan Clawley (Birmingham Post, 14 March 2013), poses just that challenging question. If the building designed by John Madin was from a Megalithic or Classical era it would certainly be of world renown. Even today many people worldwide think it is; but can we see it? If it can survive just a few more years it will certainly be one of Birmingham’s most cherished icons; but will it? As Francis Tibbalds, the leader of the Birmingham Urban Design Study said over twenty years ago, it is place that matters; and to sustain places we must respect the context and build upon the past. Not carelessly reject it.