There is a folk saying about Birmingham “that it will be nice when it’s finished”. For me, a near lifelong resident, the sprawling second city’s incomprehensibility and apparently perpetual identity crisis, is actually a major component of it’s personality. Once you get your head around this, it actually becomes quite appealing, the city is constantly in flux, recombing and being remade with a kind of manic energy that is very creative, if also potentially irreverent, brash and exhausting.
Perhaps due to this complexity, the art and other forms of creative production that the city has inspired tends to focus and hone in on a solo individual or cluster of residents. This might lead to the adoption of a tight focus on a single person as in the recent book I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal by Charlie Hill, or for that matter the Cliff Richard feature film Take Me High. Or it could take the form of two women’s friendship as in Tony Garnett’s film Prostitute, a cluster of school friends such as in Jonathan Coe’s novel The Rotters Club, or a family set sitcom like the TV serial Citizen Khan. All of these very different works, spread as they are across most of the long established communications mediums, deal with the character of Birmingham as a place by keeping a tight focus upon their protagonists, their relationships with others, and their most immediate surroundings.
Documentarians of Birmingham on the other hand have often branched off to try and capture something of the city’s complexity – and often sheer chaos – directly. Jonathan Meades’ in Heart-Bypass which was made for the BBC in the late 1990s, chose to embrace this, making a fast paced, wide ranging film, which largely collapses in on itself by the end. A few years later Darcus Howe in an episode of his White Tribe which screened on Channel 4 in 2000, opted to present himself as being overwhelmed by it. The film sees him wandering around the split levels of Merry Hill Shopping Centre in a daze, prior to a scene of him sitting in a fast food court booth in Star City amongst pinball table pings and slot machine ringining, and declaring the venue “the worst place [he had] been in [his] entire life”.
John Akomfrah and the Black Audio Film Collective in Handsworth Songs made shortly after the uprising in 1985, adopted a more abstract, lyrical and essayic technique. Their point is that “there is no story in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories’”. Handsworth and it’s people in this telling, like the wider city and the UK as a whole, can only be understood by situating them as the film succeeds brilliantly in doing, in history and a wider system of social relations. One that encompasses: the birth of industrial and financial capitalism, Transatlantic slavery, imperalism and the ongoing anti-black rascism experienced by African-Caribbeans migrants to the UK from the 1940s up until the present day. In such a film Handsworth, and by extension Birmingham, as well as adjacent areas like Smethwick, are vital characters in the exposition of the world being woven. But, the entire purpose of the film is to show how interconnected they are with everywhere and everybody else in the world, so by necessity they become subsumed into the rich tapestry of the story as a whole, meaning once again that Birmingham takes on the countenance of a dark swirling void.
The latest documentary filmmaker to tackle the problem of capturing and articulating Birmingham head on is Andy Howlett. His Paradise Lost: History in the Un-Making having premiered at the 15th Flatpack Film Festival on Monday 24th May 2021. Begun in 2013, Howlett’s film boldly attempts to document the story of John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library from the time shortly after when it closed in favour of the new Mecanoo designed structure on Centenary Square, up until it’s demolition in early 2016.
In making the film Howlett clearly grappled with many of the challenges that bedevil filmmakers and other artists, or creatives, attempting to understand and represent Birmingham in their work. Fittingly he chooses the ill fated civic centrepiece of Birmingham Central Library and surrounding Paradise Circus complex as his central character in his attempt to grapple with the city’s recent past and the issues affecting it in the present. His problem however, which he documents engagingly and candidly throughout the film, is that an easy and cohesive comprehension and understanding of Paradise Circus proves just as elusive to pin down as the city itself.
Watching the footage Howlett shot of Paradise Circus in the mid-2010s I was struck by just how utterly and delightfully bonkers a place it was. The Central Library and its surrounding complex was an important and formative place for me, which I visited very frequently for most of the first quarter century of my life. However, it was only by viewing it through Howlett’s lens, five years after it vanished into the maw of the concrete crusher, that I fully appreciated how unusual it has become to find such a place at the heart of a British city. On film it seemed rather more run-down and decayed than I remembered, though, to my mind these serve only to add to the complex’s interest. In a similar vein I appreciated Howlett’s efforts to access, document and muse upon some of the very odd, probably only partially finished, spaces underneath Paradise Circus. Alongside the sheer, sublime, totalising audacity and thrill of the complexes brutalist styling, it was these underpasses, undercrofts and weirdly empty spaces that made it distinctive.
These nostalgic musings aside, where Paradise Lost: History in the Un-Making really gets into its stride, is with Howlett’s attempts to understand the historical moment which brought the complex into being, and the more recent forces which led to it being left incomplete, neglected, and eventually torn down. In the great tradition of Birmingham documentary filmmaking he spends the majority of the film grappling with these questions, which flow into each other and interlink, and never quite reach a satisfying conclusion. This is fine, because the wandering nature of his musings perfectly suit the narration of the biography of an unfinished civic complex in a city which itself is incredibly provisional.
Howlett’s interviews with people who appreciated and/or sought to save the complex, alongside his own reflections on “the right to the city”, are interspersed with an impressive battery of archival footage, which betrays extensive archival research. This found footage is brought together with the biographies of two of the key figures in the reshaping of post-Second World War Birmingham, Herbet Manzoni and John Madin, to tell a story about modernist architecture, the post-war consensus and the eternally rapacious nature of property development, which turns out to be rather more complicated and nuanced that it first seems.
In the mid-2010s when much of the contemporary footage was shot, privatisation and austerity were very much the order of the day. They undoubtedly remain so, however, the neo-liberal consensus which seemed impregnable even five years ago, no longer holds like it did. Today the story which Howlett presents showing how Herbert Manzoni’s car loving, autocratic methods, which saw the state deploying its powers to force through redevelopment quickly, cheaply and in the private sector’s favour, crowded out the more holistic and humanistic vision of the architect John Madin, seems prescient. There is nothing inherently emancipatory or egalitarian about the state, and whilst the social wage was far more generous and there were more points of resistance to capitalism half a century ago than is the case today, Birmingham in the mid-20th Century was just as shaped by the demands of capital as the city is in the 2020s.
It is quite telling that the parts of the city that John Madin did get to masterplan were private estates, whether in Moseley, or on a far larger scale the Calthorpe Estate in Edgbaston. Like the Barbican Estate in London it was thoughtful central planning for the benefit of the wealthy. While the diverse, blue collar communities of Ladywood, New Town, Highgate and many other parts of the inner city, were bulldozed in favour of expressways, underpasses and system built flats, erected by the private firms the council outsourced the work to, that made the pieces so shoddily they seldom fitting together properly. Today when the state is again quite happy to openly flex its muscles and intervene in favour of the established order, and to smooth the flow of capital accumulation, it is right to remember this historical precedent.
Reflections on the recent past and the egalitarian nature (or not) of modern architecture, plus some nostalgia for mid-2010s tumblr and Facebook brutalism fandom aside, perhaps the most interesting facet of the Paradise Circus story Howlett uncovers, is the sub-cultural aspects that he unearths and documents. These sections of the film reminded me most acutely of the Handsworth Songs line “there is no story in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories’”. Just as Howlett shows that there is no one single narrative, other than perhaps the universal logic of property speculation and capital accumulation, underlying the creation and destruction of Paradise Circus, I was left wanting to know much more about the ways in which people used the space prior to it’s demolition.
Perhaps the next time someone wants to do some research and make a film into facets of Birmingham’s story, they could try and tell the story of the skaters who flocked to Paradise Circus between the 1980s and 2000s? Or they could swoop in on the story of Subside, and some of the other alternative venues or enterprises that perhaps could not have found a central location anywhere else? I was left fascinated by the story of the pop-up subway arts festival which was held one weekend in an underpass under the complex in 2007 and would love to know more about that and similar gatherings. Alongside the bee garden, and the urban explorers, and the stories of the library and other council workers who were based in the complex I would be pleased and fascinated to see these stories documented, because it is doubtful that there’s much recorded anywhere, and certainly not in formal archives.
These stories of people enjoying and repurposing this public space at the heart of the city, a space which as the film rightly notes is now essentially privatised and “enclosed” as a private realm, with the new Paradise development now completed, are truly an example of people exerting their “right to the city”. For this reason I was interested and pleased to see footage from a right to the streets demonstration in the second half of the 1990s which shut down the inner-ring road in the film. Birmingham has a strong, creative, but often submerged libertarian left streak, so it was great to see that Reclaim the Streets – a brilliant brief expression of people centered politics sandwiched between rave and the anti-WTO protests – were active here and could get hundreds of people mobilised. Again, I was left wanting to know much more about this story.
The final activist, collective, creative cultural expression that was touched on, and partially explored in the film, was the campaign to save the library itself. This and the outpouring of a large quantity of keepsakes, memorabilia, or arguably devotional icons, bearing an image or representation of the Central Library’s ziggurat, was fascinating to see in of itself. Whilst, not least due to the time that has elapsed since Paradise Circus’ demolition, it stands at one remove from the save the save Madin’s Library campaigners and architectural modernism fans it documents, Howlett’s film itself is arguably an expression of the pro-brutalist, or concrete curious, subculture as well. Those with an inclination towards cultural studies, or future social historians, should be fascinated and keen to find out more about the significance of this subculture and what it’s interest in brutalism and post-war modernist architecture more broadly signifies about society in the 2010s.
In the end much like previous attempts to grasp hold of and successfully interpret Birmingham, or indeed just facets or particular slices of Birmingham, Howlett’s film does not manage to reach any hugely firm conclusions. The joy of a film like this however, is the journey that you go on whilst watching it. I certainly feel that I now see a part of the city that I know well from my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood in a different way now, and feel far more appraised of how it came into existence, took on the form that I knew it in, and how it resonated and inspired people to create, explore and expression themselves in all manner of ways. My main takeaway at the end of the film was a renewed conviction that the public realm, and weird, possibly slightly sad, but open-ended spaces in the city must be fought for, that we must defend and seek to expand “the right to the city”. This is because like brutalist, multi-purpose, civic buildings, they are increasingly endangered, and the joy of Birmingham’s fluid, scrappy, shape shifting essence will be damaged and fade if we lose many more of them.
Paradise Lost: History in the Un-Making can be viewed via the Flatpack Festival portal until 27th May 2021. David Barker (Film Programmer at MAC Birmingham) conducted an interview with Andy Howlett for Flatpack which be be read here. The website for the film is here, and for one of Andy Howlett’s other projects Video Strolls, here.