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Comment: 1960s icons that defined a modern city

Mary Keating from Brutiful Birmingham says the city's 60s architecture provides a lasting legacy to be admired

New Street station signal box in 1966(Image: Courtesy BT Archives)

Birmingham in the 1960s was booming.

The West Midlands was one of the fastest-growing regions, with high wage levels.

The foundation for this was a strong manufacturing base in vehicles and engineering.

Harold Wilson in 1963 talked triumphantly about "the white heat of the technological revolution".

Birmingham's response to this prosperity and vision of the future resulted in some of our most iconic and technically advanced buildings appearing on the city skyline.

The BT Tower in Lionel Street (1967), the Birmingham New Street Signal Box in Navigation Street (1964) and the Royal Mail's main sorting office.

Both BT Tower and the Signal Box still stand and function while the sorting office has been redeveloped and is recognisable only by its new name, The Mailbox.

Fronting onto Royal Mail Street and completed in 1970, the sorting office was the largest building in Birmingham, a magnificent foursquare building with its mosaic and glass frontage built round a large internal atrium.

It was the largest mechanised letters and parcels sorting office in the country. It even boasted a tunnel joining it to New Street station to quickly transport the mail.

The BT Tower is still Birmingham's tallest structure

The BT Tower stands 152 metres high and is still the tallest structure in the city.

For decades, Birmingham's skyline had been defined by the tower.

The second of its kind to be built after London's famous GPO tower, it represented the status of Birmingham as England's second city.

Designed and constructed by the Ministry of Public Building and Works, the opening ceremony featured a closed-circuit TV broadcast between Birmingham and Norwich.

Alderman Meadows likened the experience to trying out "the television phone of the future".

The tower's height was necessary to allow direct line of sight to London's tower and others across the UK.

Originally intended to look similar to the London tower, the first sight of the Birmingham design from the street seems to embody the spirit of the era in its simplicity and elegance.

Shaped to be stable in high winds, the design is an outstanding example of the beauty of what is a purely utilitarian construction.

Enhanced by coloured, recessed balconies running up each corner, it is topped off by a sculptural series of drums carrying the communication dishes and a crane for lifting heavy equipment.

The tower still provides a high-speed data service. The New Street station Signal Box is also a purely functional building.

Of outstanding architectural merit and recognised by its grade II-listed status, it is also the only example of a pure Brutalist building we have left since the destruction of the Central Library and the NatWest Tower.

There are many misconceptions about the word 'Brutalism' which is simply an architectural style featuring bold, structurally innovative forms that use raw concrete as their primary material.

Brutalist buildings often reveal the means of their construction through unfinished surfaces that bear the imprints of the moulds that shaped them.

The name is attributed to Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier who specified béton brut (concrete that is raw or unfinished) in his designs.

New Street station's signal box is grade II listed(Image: Courtesy BT Archives)

The anglicisation of the term 'brut' into 'Brutalism' has led to its negative connotation.

Walking around the building, its sculptural presence and vitality define it as a serious work of architectural art.

The composition of concertina-like, triangular faceted concrete walls, a detail which even extends to the boundary wall on Navigation Street, is layered with beautifully proportioned windows.

Every view of the building reveals a new arrangement of well-proportioned rectangular shapes.

Viewed from Hill Street, there is the delightful punctuation of a bright red spiral staircase.

It is topped off by a vast, plain square roof which balances the whole composition to perfection.

Designed by Bicknell & Hamilton and WR Healey, and completed in 1965, it now contrasts sharply with the glitz of the new Grand Central.

It is still the home of one of the "city's most vital and intense infrastructure systems, serving the busiest rail interchange in the UK" but in a couple of years' time it will cease to function as a signal box.

Now Network Rail is beginning the quest to find a future role for it.

Could it be a gallery, an arts space, or even a museum?

The development team in 1998 before the major renovation of the old sorting office to create the Mailbox

These buildings are such outstanding icons of their time - and of our city - that we must not let them be lost like so many others now swept away.

Modernism and Brutalism were important movements which contributed an immense amount to what we recognise as great modern architecture and design today.

We must not dismiss them lightly, they are honest, have heart and soul and they were built for the purpose which their form expresses.

These buildings arose to meet the growing needs of a growing city.

Growth which, even as they were under construction, was being stifled by central Government legislation which sought to restrain the growth of Birmingham's population and employment potential in favour of the then stagnant north.

Let's celebrate these buildings which represent an important period of Birmingham's history.

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Birmingham Heritage Week starts today and runs until September 16 and there will be a series of walks celebrating 20th century landmarks.

Mary Keating represents Brutiful Birmingham which campaigns for the preservation of the city's best late 20th century buildings