How we use Cookies

Opinion: Don't call me a philistine

Planning committee member Coun Barry Henley defends his stance on Birmingham's mid-20th century architecture - something he's not a fan of

Barry Henley is not a fan of Birmingham's 20th century architecture like Central Library

I have been accused within these pages of being a philistine in my views about 20th century architecture in Birmingham.

It isn't true - and I will explain why.

I am a member of Birmingham City Council's planning committee and was, for a couple of years, chairman of the conservation and heritage panel which reviews applications in conservation areas and for listed buildings of architectural importance.

I love good architecture and have spent many years visiting the very best all over the world.

I have lived in several cities of great architectural merit and I have been an unrelenting critic of the ugliness of much 20th century construction in Birmingham.

I can claim to have been influential in improving poor design in conservation areas or near listed buildings.

I campaigned successfully against an inappropriate design for a new wing in the grounds of Moseley Hall Hospital, which has a Grade I-listed building at its heart.

The redesign upon which I advised the architect is now appreciated by neighbouring residents of the Amesbury Road conservation area, and it complements the listed building - the cow house and dovecote in the grounds.

Moseley residents, as I write, are watching the construction of a Marks & Spencer food store in their conservation area with delight after I helped defeat the inappropriate designs for a Tesco and helped the developer's architect come up with a vision to blend with the existing Edwardian buildings.

On the planning committee, I led the opposition to a 26-storey glass tower above the Central Fire Station, in Birmingham city centre, a listed 1930s building in a conservation area.

It was originally recommended for approval by the council officers.

Architect John Madin with a model of Central Library
Architect John Madin with a model of Central Library

Then it came back as a 23-storey tower and the committee rejected it again.

Now, the fire station has been restored to its former glory with an eight-storey tower concealed within the drill yard.

So who trashed my reputation? Why did Birmingham Post columnist and architect Joe Holyoak write that my judgement was wrong?

It derives from accurate reports of comments I made in planning committee meeting.

But these have been seized on in part by advocates of Brutalist architecture to say I am a mindless, ill-informed critic.

Yet, I love the Modernist movement, though clearly the Brutalist style does not have the elegance and beautiful lines of Modernism.

So here is what I said in full on November 24 - and you can judge for yourself whether this is mindless criticism or plain common sense.

I was replying to Coun Fiona Williams, who said: "It seems that Historic England do not attach any importance to post-war architecture in the city... every generation should be allowed to leave its mark on the city even if some of them are subsequently seen to be mistakes... itdoes seem we are losing a lot of heritage..."

I replied: "We are better off now that the NatWest Building is being demolished in Colmore Row as we speak.

"We are better off now the Central Library has gone. What we can all regret is that the Central Library before that, the Victorian one, was not preserved.

"What we have to face up to is that some of these buildings have reached the end of their design life and useful life.

"So, for example, on Hagley Road we took a Madin building, re-clad it, it's now being let and it's in use again. One can't simply say 'keep every John Madin building' just because it is a John Madin building.

"If nobody will rent it and nobody will occupy it, there is no point in it being derelict.

"And so we have a situation where it may be that the appropriate thing is to demolish it, or it maybe that the appropriate thing is to re-clad it, refurbish it and re-use it.

"But you can't generally say that spec buildings that were put up in the 1960s were of such wonderful character they should be kept.

"And we are better off with the new Bullring, better off with many of the other things we've done, replacing some of the post-war architecture.

"If you knock down a tatty, crummy Bull Ring with low ceilings that is non-navigable and generally horrible, with no anchor tenants like department stores, and build a much better one that everyone wants to go to, there's a net gain.

"I don't think people should just argue for keeping things fossilised when we can actually improve them."

I am really looking forward to the forthcoming demolition of the ugly former Powergen building designed by John Madin in Shirley that has been derelict for at least ten years.

Aren't you?

Councillor Barry Henley is a member of Birmingham City Council's planning committee

Comments

Journalists

Graeme Brown
Editor (Agenda and Business)
Enda Mullen
Business Reporter
Tamlyn Jones
Business Reporter
Neil Elkes
Local Government Correspondent
Emma McKinney
Education Correspondent
Ben Hurst
News Editor
Jonathan Walker
Political Editor