The inner ring road and the infrastructure of the Manzoni era (1930’s to 1960’s) is today widely held as the biggest error in post war planning in Birmingham, itself often held up as an example of the failure of modern planning in Britain. The ‘concrete ring’ strangles the city core, separating it from its surrounding quarters, discouraging explorers with its roaring underpasses and public gardens beneath Lancaster Circus and Five Ways. The current masterplan or ‘Big City Plan’ in my opinion rightly seeks to neutralize the inner ring’s effect, but in doing so presents a subtle problem in conservation terms.
There are many obviously fine buildings ‘at risk’ throughout Birmingham, subjects of the recent Re-Imagine competition like Moseley Road Baths or the Golden Lion Inn. The problem is that they are not at present self-sustaining economically, and until the tide of economic growth rises somewhat higher, will probably not receive subsidy to be able to be restored or used in a way that fits their original purposes, as would be the goal of ‘pure conservation’. So sadly, even our city’s best and most loved historic buildings are at risk. What then for our lesser and unloved relics?
English Heritage’s book English Heritage’s book Images of Change: England’s Late 20th Century Landscapes by Sefryn Penrose discussed and proposed retaining (slightly warily) the structures and places that are representative of the 20th century. Not the obvious show-piece buildings like the Barbican or Southbank Centre, but the Butlins’, the prisons, the powerstations (Battersea, Tate Modern’s Bankside) that really represented Britain as it was, rather than how it wanted to be. Forgetting cost, if we were to apply the same thinking to Birmingham, what would be keep?
The infrastructure of the 1950’s onwards is representative of a ‘chapter’ in the city’s history. It has, or will have historic value in time, but should it, or can it, be preserved in any meaningful way? Perhaps it is a ‘mistake’, and should be forgotten, although we do not try to forget wars or other tragic events. Or perhaps it should be preserved in the belief that all things, eventually, become beautiful, nostalgic or romantic?
The – I believe apocryphal – “More canals than Venice” strap-line of Birmingham’s 90’s regeneration is occasionally still heard, and it seems remarkable that there was a time when canals were considered unpleasant urban detritus. Black, shopping-trolley infested fault lines through the city where only the brave ventured. But early adopters found romance there, like Richard Mabey in ‘The Unofficial Countryside’. Now they are ‘green lungs’, sites of gentrification, paths for joggers, cyclists and anglers, a rich resource. Will we ever see the underpasses, round-about-gardens, flyovers and tunnels as similarly attractive?
No one is proposing the whole-sale demolition of the ring road, but it and all its elements will be gradually eroded, and an evocative period of the city’s history will disappear. But, the thought of earnest black clad design buffs mounting protests at the loss of a ceramic clad underpass which is ‘delightfully evocative of the motor age’ is quite unpleasant. So what, if anything, might we keep from this period, if we could afford it, or can continue to find a use for?
Spaghetti Junction perhaps, the great, self-defeatingly labelled Brummie landmark. I travelled over it many times as child travelling with my family from Leicester, and it was to me legendary for its apparent complexity, and the unlovely views over the concrete barriers of the M6. Moving to Birmingham in my late twenties, I was amazed to discover it was basically a cross roads between the M6 and A38, and I still have no idea why they made such a meal of it.
But I was literally awe-struck the first time I walked under it, following the canal from Aston Junction to walk around the Heartlands Loop. I was reading at the time Paul Farley & Michael Symmons Roberts’ wonderful Edgelands, along with Richard Mabey, and Iain Sinclair, all writers who taught me to look at the every-day in the city with fresh eyes.
“…underneath this long, extended bridge, this complex of flyovers, is another world… dark, damp, intense and menacing. Peel off the flyover and circle round to get to the edgelands below… we see the River Tame, a Styx in semi-darkness mirroring the journey of the flyover above… It is as if we can see inside the body of a road, its viscera, its bloodstream” (p.131 to 132).
Okay, you’re not convinced.
Well anyway, while travelling both below and over it is something of a niche interest, it can’t be denied that Spaghetti Junction is a masterpiece of engineering. My brain aches at the thought of designing concrete bridges, curving in three dimensions without a computer. My brain aches at the thought of designing them with a computer. A marvellous relic of post-war British ingenuity and know-how, and a symbol of space-age optimism.
It is gradually decaying, as all things do, and is being steadily repaired. Will there come a time where we decide to conserve it? English Heritage recently published their 360 odd page manual on conservation of historic concrete (enlightening, although not a rollercoaster of a read). I very much doubt the engineers repairing Spaghetti Junction have referred to it, and who now would expect them to?
Perhaps buildings (etcetera) should be conserved in the manner that they were built – if rationally utilitarian, then be ready to be torn down and replaced when the need arises. We can’t keep everything from history, like tragic hoarders who are found in their flats surrounded by bales of newspapers. And this is especially so where historic artefacts occupy valuable real estate within a city, causing inconvenience or demanding precious public funding.
We must have strange ideas of Georgian England from the sprinkling of artefacts that have remained, valuable enough to be reused. What then will we keep from this period of Birmingham’s history to remember the mistakes, or indeed, smile at an optimistic time? And what strange ideas will future generations have of it?
Thanks to Andrew Kulman, English Heritage, Suburban Birmingham (all as credited).
For a wonderful archive of Birmingham before and after the ring road, see the P J Norton collection.