Tower envy in the city

By Alan Clawley.

Birmingham’s civic leaders suffer not only from a well-known inferiority complex about Birmingham’s ranking with other UK cities, they clearly harbour a feeling that the city’s ‘own’ Colmore Row Office zone is less successful than the Calthorpe Estate Commercial Area –  master-minded by architect John Madin along the Hagley Road.

Madin’s 1957 Master Plan allocated 40 acres of land along the Hagley Road where bright modern office blocks could be built; into which city office workers could move from old drab war-damaged city centre buildings. Envy of its success shows in persistent hostility to Madin and his work. For example, when I began to challenge the City Council’s plans to demolish his Central Library in 2002, I received a letter from the Principal Project Officer, Library of Birmingham, Ayub Khan, informing me that ‘The architect group [John Madin Design Group] is no longer in practice and John Madin is now deceased.’ (Letter dated 21 June 2002, my emphasis). A case of wishful thinking as Madin was then – and still is – very much alive and living in Southampton.

Another damning attack on Madin’s professional reputation was perpetrated by the council’s chief planning officer, former property developer and town planner Clive Dutton, when he advised the Cabinet in 2008 that the Central Library had  ‘no architectural merit’ and that councillors need not worry about the possibility of it being listed. He was clearly wrong as it took the council 3 anxious years and furious lobbying to secure its Certificate of Immunity from Listing from the government against the advice if English Heritage.

Birmingham’s Civic Society was happy to join in the chorus of condemnation in support of the council. Its Chair Freddie Gick appeared on BBC TV’s One Show in 2008 in front of the Central Library declaring it ‘an example of the worst kind of architecture that might have had its place in post-revolutionary Russia, not a Victorian Square in Birmingham’.

Further evidence of our civic leaders need to over-compensate for their feelings of inferiority is their determination to demolish Madin’s Central Library in order to hand Paradise Circus over to a private developer whose plans included several very tall office buildings. To carry out their plan the city had to borrow £200 million to build a new library that no library-user asked for on a site much too small for an over-ambitious building that is  ‘too big for its boots’, a bit like Councillor Whitby, whose vanity project it is.

Mike Whitby at start of construction of Birmingham's new central library

Mike Whitby at start of construction of Birmingham’s new central library

The cost of the borrowing will fall entirely on the Council Taxpayers of Birmingham at a time when front-line services are being decimated.

Yet another major Madin building, the vacant 20-storey Natwest Tower in Colmore Row is disliked by councillors who now plan to replace it entirely with a 35-storey glass and aluminium office tower built right up to the back of pavement, thus removing the last traces of Madin’s work in what they see as ‘their’ Office Zone. The fact that Colmore Row is a Conservation Area and includes many modestly scaled historic buildings seems to pose no contradiction for the planners. Madin’s Post and Mail tower block has already gone.

When I asked the council how they could justify building new offices in Paradise Circus when the Five Ways Tower, a handsome tower block built by the government in the 1970s but which is now owned by Calthorpe Estates had been standing empty for 10 years, the Chief Executive replied somewhat haughtily, ‘Five ways Tower is not owned or maintained by Birmingham City Council and the area cannot be compared to the Paradise Circus development which represents a strategic opportunity to grow the City’s prime office core centred upon Colmore Row. Paradise Circus will be able to provide the very highest quality grade A office space to attract and retain companies to Birmingham. The space provided and its location is not comparable with that at Five Ways which will appeal to a different market segment.’

Whilst it remains to be seen whether the Council’s ambitions for Paradise Circus are realized, the Calthorpe Estate already contains a number of top quality Grade A offices in refurbished blocks such as 54 Hagley Road and 100 Hagley Road both of which were designed by Madin.

Fifty Four Hagley Road

Fifty Four Hagley Road

Chapter two of the book on John Madin published this year, describes how the Chamber of Commerce in Calthorpe Road considered replacing the building that Madin designed to cover only one third of its site leaving the rest for landscape, with a new block that covered the entire site. In Madin’s view the abandonment of this, his 1957 ‘plot ratio’ policy would set a precedent for others to follow and would lead to more of the planning ‘chaos’ that he saw in the city centre.

To be charitable the Council’s plans have a habit of coming to fruition at the same time as serious downturns in the economy but this could be because they take so long to implement them. In contrast Madin’s Calthorpe Estate Commercial Area was completed in the ’70s according to his three-dimensional master plan and remains largely as he envisioned it in 1957.