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Opinion: Birmingham's hidden sculptures

Mary Keating, from campaign group Brutiful Birmingham, is encouraging people to stay and take a good look at Birmingham's hidden architecture

Quayside Tower, in Broad Street

There is a well-kept Birmingham secret.

Did you know that the city has two fabulous sculptures by the internationally renowned post-war sculptor, William George Mitchell?

Our walks take in these two concrete treasures overlooked in the busyness of Birmingham life. The first is easily accessible but rarely commented on.

Next time you walk along Broad Street towards Five Ways, pause as you pass Quayside Tower, on the left just after Gas Street.

Look up to admire the intricacies of the iconic concrete sculptures which adorn the first floor of the building.

Best known for the doors of Liverpool Cathedral, several of Mitchell's works are now Grade II-listed.

The doors on Birmingham's NatWest Tower, now sadly demolished, are also his. Where are those doors now?

It was to Mitchell that the John Madin Partnership turned to when Quayside Tower was designed and built in 1966.

As with the Piper Mosaic in the Chamber of Commerce, Madin chose to incorporate art works into the finished design of this building.

The panels extend over all three sides of the building, a total of 21 panels in all, one treble-sized, which topped the original entrance.

Start your walk standing on the opposite side of Broad Street, on the corner of Oozells Street.

From here, you get a sense of both the scale and detailed patterning of these splendid, decorative panels.

Every panel is different: rectangular, triangular and circular shapes repeating in every conceivable size, texture and combination, each unique in the detail of its design.

As you walk back along Broad Street towards Gas Street, you can see that many of the windows are now blacked out giving the building a blank look, which denies the lightness of the original concept.

NatWest Tower - now demolished

 

Several of the panels are obscured with signage and additions at street level.

Imagine how pleasing to the eye Quayside Tower would be if the windows were revealed and the Mitchell sculptures were, once more, fully visible.

As you reach Gas Street, cross over and turn round to admire the combination of a statement building with the softening effect of the plane trees, a combination of hard surface and soft planting at the heart of Madin design for all the key buildings he created for Birmingham.

Sadly Quayside Tower no longer looks much like its original self. It was given a make-over in the 2003.

The façade was re-clad and two pairs of 'wings' were added on top.

Compare this with the uncluttered appearance of Jury's Inn next door, a fine building too, and it becomes apparent that the clean lines of the Quayside Tower, standing on its decorative plinth, have been lost.

If you admired the panels on Quayside Tower, you will be stunned by the artistry, detail, and intricacies of The Climbing Wall, Mitchell's 1968 magnificent concrete sculpture under the flyover at Hockley Circus.

Approaching the area can be an unpleasant experience. If you park on the car park under the flyover, don't be deterred by the smell of urine in the underpass.

Take your courage in both hands and approach through this or one of the less challenging underpasses.

Emerging into the area under the flyover, you will be rewarded by finding yourself in another world, an amazing open area, bounded on two sides by three of the most exciting pieces of art work in the whole of Birmingham.

Walk the perimeter to enjoy the full expanse of this extraordinary piece, part mural, part play sculpture.

Count the shapes, follow the patterns, admire the variety of textures, note the complexity of the design.

The skill with which the concrete has been worked is particularly evident in the depth, density and variety of the abstract images and the way the design continues on the inside of the pleats and folds.

Mitchell's piece is complemented by the best of the graffiti on display in the underpasses. The area has not been completely abandoned.

Last summer, The Flyover Show returned after a four-year break - an all-day event featuring music, art, and food. We should be celebrating this marvellous work of art with more events of this kind.

William Mitchell's Faircrete sculptures have stood the test of time.

They reflect the interest in abstract images and the use of exciting new materials so prevalent at the time.

They bear witness to the skill and artistry of a significant, international artist.

Very little damage has occurred to either of these works and it is time to recognise their exceptional quality and include them on the Birmingham cultural map.

Birmingham is privileged to have such exceptional examples of Mitchell's work and Brutiful Birmingham is concerned that they should not fall foul of the personal opinions of those, like Coun Barry Henley, on the city's planning Committee who apparently claim we are better off without the architecture (and the art?) of the 1960s.

Were these art works placed in a Sculpture Park or in the surrounds of an Art Gallery, they would be celebrated and preserved.

Mary Keating represents the Brutiful Brum group, campaigning to preserve Birmingham’s last Brutalist landmarks

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