Alan Clawley – A life less ordinary

Steve Beauchampé pays further tribute to the community activist and Birmingham Press columnist .

Alan Clawley, who has died from cancer aged 74, was the kind of tireless campaigner that every community needs more of. The causes that he became best known for – saving Birmingham’s modernist central library from demolition and championing the work of its architect John Madin – may not have been the most popular, but Alan fought for both tenaciously, assiduously and with a relentless determination that was both an example, and an inspiration, to others.

That he was supported in his efforts by such informed and respected voices as those of English Heritage (now Historic England) and the Victorian and 20th Century societies, and by knowledgeable local architectural experts Joe Holyoak and Andy Foster, speaks volumes for the strength of his arguments.

Fearlessly taking on both Councillors and senior council officials over the library, exposing their cant, their ill-informed interventions, the deep flaws in their arguments, Alan presented a coherent, convincing case for the defence. He scoured official documents, challenging a decision-making process that had clearly reached its conclusions before it had examined the evidence, shining a very bright light on its shortcomings in a way that no elected councillor came close to. And he did so incessantly, initially via the online pages of Adrian Goldberg’s Stirrer website and, following its closure, via its successor, the Birmingham Press.

What his Council opponents wanted at Paradise Circus were 60-storey towers, what they are now getting is a bland, urban office scape as forgettable as Madin’s imposing inverted ziggurat was memorable. Alan saw this coming; he read the planning applications, poured over the Paradise Circus development plans and strategy documents, and when it came to the new Library of Birmingham, Alan repeatedly warned of the project’s true cost and un-affordability, of how the city would end up with a central library reduced in size and offering a diminished service to that of its predecessor.

Whilst many councillors and high-ranking city officials derided John Madin’s work, readily approving or supporting the demolition of many of his key buildings, and colluding in trashing his reputation, Alan spoke out for surely the most important and influential of twentieth century Birmingham architects. This admiration resulted in a biography of Madin, published in 2011 (part of the RIBA’s 20th Century Architects series) and the first serious overview of Madin’s work.

Alan wrote and researched two further books, Batsford’s Birmingham Then and Now (2013) and Library Story: A History of Birmingham Central Library (2016) and helped form the Brutiful Birmingham Action Group, its goal to increase appreciation of this much derided brutalist style of modernist architecture.

Yet there was more to Alan Clawley than the Birmingham Central Central Library and John Madin. Moving to the city in the early 1970s after training at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, where he had graduated in 1969, he became involved in the Small Heath Park Housing Co-operative and was an active member of the Green Party, standing (as did his wife Hazel) in many elections (both he and Hazel were on the ballot paper for Thursday’s council elections), and he was a friend of Moseley Road Baths amongst many other community campaign groups.

Indeed, so much of what Alan Clawley did was undertaken without the thought or expectation of financial gain, but because it was worthwhile and needed to be done. Surely a significant measure of a life well-lived.

5 thoughts on “Alan Clawley – A life less ordinary

  1. Didn’t always agree with his views on the city…but respected his insights and his sharp writing. It’s a loss to his family and friends, to this site and to Bham

  2. A sad loss. We need more people like Alan who are prepared to stand against conventional wisdom and argue in an intelligent and inform way another viewpoint. In his stand against the demolition of the Central Library he made alot of people appreciate the beauty of and importance of saving some of our finer examples of Brutalist architecture.

    As Richard Lutz says above, I didn’t always agree with Alan’s views, but I had the upmost respect for his informed opinion.

  3. With Alan Clawley’s death, Providence has served us ill on many levels, personally, locally, our city, the environment – and more. We can ill-afford to lose an ally such as Allan, so wholeheartedly “on the side of the angels”.
    I post this on behalf of my family, friends and other Greens with hugs to Allan’s family.
    Thank you Alan for rather a lot.

  4. I knew Alan for many years and his death is indeed a great loss. He played an important role in getting housing co-operatives established in Small Heath, first as founder member of Victoria Tenants Co-operative and then as one of the first members of Small Heath Co-operative. He stayed true to his co-operative principles and he and his wife stayed living in the co-op to this day. Two years ago, Alan published a short history of housing co-operatives in Small Heath, of which there are five all set up in the late 1970s and early 80s. As always it was carefully researched and to celebrate its publication Alan organised a reunion of housing co-operators old and new in Small Heath including a tour of the various housing schemes co-ops built across the area. All of the co-ops are still prospering despite the hostile environment for small community based housing projects. Their survival is in no small part down to committed people like Alan.

  5. Respect for Alan and his continual endeavours over many years, we do need people to challenge given orthodoxy.

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