On the 50th anniversary of Sir Herbert Manzoni's retirement as City Engineer and Surveyor of the city, Stacey Barnfield looks back at his controversial legacy.
Sir Herbert John Baptista Manzoni cared little for conservation.
It has been quipped that the civil engineer, who held the title of City Engineer and Surveyor of Birmingham, brought more damage to the city than the Luftwaffe could only ever dream of.
And the man whose name sends shivers down the spines of conservationists once said: “I have never been very certain as to the value of tangible links with the past. They are often more sentimental than valuable.
“As to Birmingham’s buildings, there is little of real worth in our architecture.
“As for future generations, I think they will be better occupied in applying their thoughts and energies to forging ahead, rather than looking backward.”
This blunt approach helped secure the demolition of the city’s popular Central Library, a building dating back to 1882, among many other grand Victorian structures.
John Madin’s brutalist replacement took the same name but was light years away in design and is itself now timetabled for demolition.
Manzoni held the title of City Engineer for 28 years and was unflinching in his mission to create a revitalised Birmingham after extensive damage during the war years.
He set about razing whole swathes of city centre buildings including grand, porticoed market halls at the Bull Ring. The Bull Ring Centre Manzoni oversaw is now long gone to be replaced by the current retail mall and Selfridges building.
It is somewhat telling that Manzoni Gardens, a small area of Bull Ring public space named after him, has also been swept away.
So, on the 50th anniversary of Manzoni’s retirement, can today’s city planners and architects ever forgive the man who had such an impact on Birmingham’s heritage?
After all, this was a man who was knighted for his services and won recognition from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
Can Manzoni ever be forgiven for his now-derided regeneration projects or was he simply fulfilling his brief to remove acres of slum housing using the latest methods, materials and architectural design styles at his disposal?
Birmingham historian, Professor Carl Chinn, believes Manzoni was determined to make changes for the better, but failed to seek the views of residents on what they wanted or needed.
“Herbert Manzoni had a vision to transform Birmingham, to forge it ahead into the future and to force it out of the past,” said Prof Chinn.
“There can be little doubt that much needed to be changed. Tens of thousands of Brummies still lived in unsanitary back-to-back houses with crumbling communal facilities such as lavatories and washhouses; the traffic problems in the city were so bad that transport was grinding to a halt; and there was a desperate need for up-to-date shopping facilities.
“Manzoni was determined to address these challenges in a radical way and by an astute use of both national and local legislation.
“Buildings of worth and significance like the old Reference Library were demolished to make way for the new; whilst no-one asked the stallholders, the barrow boys or the flower sellers for their opinions about the changes to the Bull Ring markets.”
Manzoni’s slum clearance scheme built tower blocks in response to a massive housing shortage in Birmingham.
Vast areas of land were designated redevelopment zones and high density housing was built in the suburbs of Duddeston, Highgate and Newtown.
In 1943 he started work on his most infamous legacy – Birmingham’s Inner Ring Road.
The ‘Concrete Collar’, widely viewed as a costly barrier to city centre expansion and one of the biggest planning mistakes of the 20th century, was officially opened by the Queen in 1971.
Manzoni designed the road to be ‘grade separated’, meaning any junctions should pass above or underneath each other to keep traffic moving. This forced pedestrians to use a network of unpopular dimly-lit subways.
Birmingham city council began taking apart the Inner Ring Road in the 1990s with regeneration areas at the Masshouse and St Chad’s junctions.
The work of Manzoni, who died in 1972 aged 73, was at a time of post-war anti-conservationism, when preservation of Victorian architecture wasn’t as strongly challenged as today.
Planning laws were in their infancy, allowing Manzoni to mastermind his many projects across inner-city Birmingham with few objections.
Birmingham Conservation Trust is a group that aims to preserve and enhance Birmingham’s threatened architectural heritage. The group helped secure the future of Birmingham’s last back to back houses and is now doing the same for the Newman Brothers Coffin Fitting Works in Hockley.
Simon Buteux, director of the trust said: “Herbert Manzoni belongs to a different time and you have to judge him by that period.
“In the white heat of post-war technological revolution it wasn’t just Birmingham that was hit badly by similar attitudes to redevelopment. Many other cities took the view that you had to knock it down and start again. With hindsight we now know we need to get a balance of different needs as cities are rooted in the past. You can take too much away from that and throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to redevelopment.”
Prof Chinn added: “How much better it would have been if slum clearance had been more thoughtful and if working-class people had been asked for their views?
“How much better it would have been if neighbourhoods had been demolished one by one, allowing their families to be rehoused within their own communities if they so wished?
“How much better it would have been if houses had been built and not flats and that needs of the elderly, young families and others had been taken into account more sensitively? As a powerful and inspirational leader, Manzoni cared deeply for the city – but like so many professionals he did not understand or seek to understand either working-class culture or the need for proper consultation with the citizens of Birmingham. Sadly many feel that those lessons still need to be learned by those in power.”