More than skin deep

Alan Clawley fears that John Madin’s legacy is being obliterated from Birmingham’s architectural heritage.

When the organisers of this summer’s ‘Love Architecture Festival’ asked me to lead a walking tour of John Madin’s buildings in the City Centre I wondered how to make it a positive experience for the architecture enthusiasts who signed up on the day. The fact had to be faced that if the City Council and various developers have their way every trace of Madin’s work in the city centre will be obliterated within the next five years. So I decided to call the walk ‘Architecture Is More Than Skin Deep’ to try to get beneath the visual appearance of buildings by which they are often judged and to reveal the economic, social and political pressures that are sealing the fate of the buildings designed by Birmingham’s most prolific modernist architect.

Our first stop was to 20 Bennetts Hill to stand and stare at what is now a building society whose distant predecessor, the Birmingham Citizens Permanent Building Society, gave Madin his break as a young architect. With the help of his father, who was a member of the board, Madin got the job of designing its shop front in a modernist style. It was so admired by the City architect that he asked Madin to design some new shopping centres in the big council estates in Frankley.

A gentle walk through St Phillips Churchyard and Colmore Square brought us beneath the new office block of Colmore Plaza that in 2007 replaced Madin’s Post and Mail that was famous for its digital clock and its entrance hall in the podium where Mail readers delivered their small ads to for the next edition. All that remains here is the gargantuan Printing Hall half of which was below ground to house the 12 hot-metal printing presses.

After wondering what other uses could be found for this windlowless industrial-scale building we trekked back along Colmore Row to examine the abandoned Natwest building, now owned by British Land. The developers have kindly put a large computer generated image on the building to show us what will replace it after they demolish it if and when the property market for Grade A offices recovers. Noting the Madin’s building was approved after the Colmore Conservation Area had been declared we wondered how the planning committee could square that circle when it approved a higher and even more assertive replacement.

Moving on to the Central Library and a ride up the first few floors that remain open to the public. The place has the feel of a department store about to close down. Only the posters shouting ‘Everything Must Go’ are missing.

And so on to our final visit, a guided tour of the School of Music led by a Jazz student at the School. That is typical of the place. The students run the place and it buzzes with activity, all of it hidden from the world outside. The interior has been completely refurbished. The sound systems and acoustics are really good. We stood and listened to a full student orchestra rehearsing in the recital room, admired the Adrian Boult Hall and were shown round the tranquil music library. All these gems are tucked away behind a nondescript façade that people pass without noticing. Although the invisible sign ‘Everything Must Go’ hangs over the doorway, here the place has been kept in its best condition until its fate is finally decided.