‘If the Ringway goes, I’m leaving’ – the fight to save Birmingham’s brutiful masterpieces | Architecture
The Ringway Centre, sweeping 230 metres along Birmingham’s inner ring road in one continuous curve, is a striking monument to the heroic age of the UK’s “motorway city”. It stands like a protective wall, its four floors of offices framed by horizontal bands of abstract concrete reliefs and slender vertical fins, punctuated by a staccato rhythm of Corbusian bullhorn lamps. The taut ribbon of offices projects out over the street, sheltering a long parade of shops, and leaps over a road supported on dramatic angled columns – compared by their architect, James Roberts, to “the massive feet of a Martian monster”.
Built in 1962, as highway fever was sweeping the city, the Ringway was the ultimate expression of “carchitecture”: a building designed to be taken in at speed. It fused the American strip mall, the British high street and the brave new world of inner city ring roads into what the Birmingham Pevsner architectural guide describes as “the best piece of mid-20th century urban design in the city”. It even served as the glamorous backdrop for a Clint Eastwood photoshoot when he visited the city in 1967, posing moodily on the balcony of the hotel across the street.
But come here today and you won’t see much of it. The entire building is engulfed in a bright purple shroud, installed for the recent Commonwealth Games, concealing the modernist facade behind a lurid billboard of gyrating letter Bs. It is an apt reflection of the council’s attitude to its postwar heritage: as the world’s eyes were focused on Birmingham, it chose to hide one of its most important buildings. Beneath the jazzy wrapper, the structure lies empty and condemned. Although it is locally listed, plans were unveiled in July to raze the entire complex and build three huge glass towers in its place.
“If the Ringway Centre comes down,” says Mary Keating, “I’ll have to leave Birmingham.” She is standing beneath the building’s majestic facade, where the curved concrete lamps poke through the purple vinyl veil like pleading fingers, as if urging passersby to halt the wrecking ball. “The city has been hellbent on bulldozing its postwar heritage. This is one of the last and most important buildings we’ve got left.”
Keating has been battling to save the city’s brutalist architecture since 2015, when she came together with fellow retiree enthusiasts Jenny Marris and John Bell to form the Brutiful Birmingham action group. They were stirred into action by the fate of the city’s Central Library, a muscular inverted ziggurat designed by local architect John Madin, which was shamefully torn down in 2016 – despite Historic England’s repeated pleas that it should be listed.
“It has been replaced by a load of tat,” says Keating, referring to the insipid mixed-use development designed by Glenn Howells, inaccurately named Paradise. “It’s all cladding and glass. It could be anywhere in the world. The city is destroying a period of our heritage that is so particular to Birmingham, for this featureless rubbish.”
The campaigning trio have been venting their fury in the pages of the Birmingham Post over the last few years in a series of columns that are now brought together in a new book, Birmingham: The Brutiful Years, published by the Modernist Society. It is a lyrical love letter to a city that can sometimes be hard to love, walking the reader through Brum’s postwar shopping precincts, speculative office towers, university campuses, public artworks, suburban churches and such tangled motorway intersections as Spaghetti Junction. Their enthusiasm is infectious: dry architectural history this is not; passionate and illuminating advocacy for a city of bold experiments, it most certainly is.
As Keating and I pace the streets, looking up at facades and peering down at details, the city centre unfolds as a patchwork of rare intrigue. We stop to admire the concertina frontage of House of Fraser, folded like sharply scored origami, and the undulating concrete canopy above a subway, punctured with cosmic circular lenses. We find handsome book-matched green slate panels over the entrance to Pandora, and fine mosaic-work above a Wagamama, next to an expressionist bronze relief over an unmarked door.
We encounter bulbous sci-fi windows bulging on the corner above the Admiral Casino Slots Experience, as if ready for lift-off, and marvel at the chiselled zigzag balconies that rise above a Snappy Snaps, writhing with wrought-iron balustrades like the work of some Brummie Gaudí.
The last one is the extraordinary Grosvenor House on Bennett’s Hill, one of the more expressive works of Cotton, Ballard & Blow, who built much of the postwar city centre – “little if any of which is said to have improved the look of that city”, as the Spectator grumbled in 1959. Keating and her co-authors beg to differ, as does Historic England, which describes the Grade-II listed building as “a rare and delightful example of 1950s contemporary style at its most energetic … imaginative and richly detailed”. It’s a wonderful piece of flash commercial design, the whole thing crowned with a floating concrete and glass parasol.
While much can be enjoyed from the streets, some of the “brutiful” highlights require venturing indoors and nosing around unlikely places. One hidden treasure is to be found upstairs in the womenswear department of Zara. Behind the racks of muted autumnal clothing stands a vast earth-toned cylinder encrusted with frenzied reliefs of spirals, wheels, grids and sunbursts. It has the air of an ancient Aztec monument. Press one of the panels and you half expect it to groan open and reveal a sacrificial altar.
It is the work of local sculptor John Poole, who originally designed it as the momentous focal point of what was, at the time of its creation in 1963, the double-height banking hall of Lloyd’s. This vast mural, cast in “ciment fondu”, is all still there, protected by listing, although its lower half is sadly hidden in the Zara storeroom.
The reason for its preservation is that it stands in the base of the Rotunda, a 25-storey cylindrical tower designed by James Roberts (he of the Ringway) in 1965. It’s one of the few buildings of the era to have been Grade II-listed, thus making it the “icon” of postwar Birmingham since the library vanished. Clad in precast concrete panels faced with white mosaic tiles, alternating with bands of aluminium windows, the tower was envisaged by Roberts as a “huge candle in the middle of Birmingham”, originally intended to have neon rings encircling each floor.
After the planned observation deck and rotating restaurant were scrapped, Roberts moved his own office into the top two floors, where he could look out at his creations, including the twin Sentinel towers of council flats that keep watch over the city wall of the Ringway. Listed in 2000, the Rotunda was converted into apartments by Urban Splash in 2008, to designs by Glenn Howells, replacing the delicate window frames and mosaic tiles with a clumsier cladding system. “I think they messed it up,” says Keating. “But at least it’s still standing.”
Sadly the same cannot be said for so much of Birmingham’s postwar heritage, which has already gone the way of the library. Madin’s fine towers for the Post and Mail and the National Westminster Bank were both demolished, in 2006 and 2015, and replaced with corpulent glass slabs, while the hungry jaws of the concrete crunchers are now nibbling their way through the brutalist Axis building, built for British Rail in the 1970s. The same sorry fate is set to afflict Corporation Square – described by the Pevsner guide as “Birmingham’s best 1960s shopping development”, and the only building in Birmingham designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, the feted architect of Harlow New Town and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.
The brutiful trio describe it as “a hint of Le Corbusier in Birmingham”, its low-rise facades of white Portland stone, punctured by vertical slit windows, framing a courtyard oasis. But in 2020 the council approved plans by developer Hammerson to flatten the whole thing and replace it with a mixed-use “signature gateway” development – another galumphing commercial quarter of could-be-anywhere filler by Glenn Howells.
“All this demolition makes a mockery of the city’s desire to reach zero carbon by 2030,” says Keating. “Renovation and reuse would be eminently possible in all of these cases.” She adds that it’s not just about the architecture and embodied energy, but also the embodied memories in these structures. “It’s about what these buildings mean to people on an everyday basis. People went to House of Fraser to have a nice time with their mum, or went for a night out at Snobs in the Ringway, or the Forum under the Gibberd building, which has hosted all sorts of famous bands. These places are part of people’s psyche.”
As we loop back to the Ringway, we see the Commonwealth Games slogan emblazoned across the purple hoarding: “Be bold, be Birmingham.” If only the council would take heed of their own words, the city could become a model of creative postwar conservation, and breathe new life into its brutiful past, rather than trampling it all to dust.