History, Notebook, Photography, Reviews

Review: Paradise 1974-2016

With a form of openness returning after two years of COVID-19 induced restrictions, numerous lockdown projects are emerging blinking into the light. 

Paradise 1974-2016, David Rowan’s photographic requiem for John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library, is amongst the best of these that I have seen so far. Rowan has weaved his images together with frames from an eerily comparable project made between the 1960s and 1980s by the under-appreciated amatuer Derek Fairbrother. In concert with a wide ranging and superbly taut essay by Flatpack Projects Director Ian Francis exploring the history of Birmingham’s civic quarter. These elements come together into a finely tuned book, presented in a sleek grey package that would be the envy of any committee of 1970s municipal worthies, crafted by the graphic designer Keith Dodds.

The sheer concentrated, thoughtful energy embodied in the book, is undoubtedly a testimony to the weirdly shapeless and constricted time in which it was created. A period in which so many of the beautiful country lanes, wide foreign boulevards, and horizonless autobahns we traverse and which give life meaning and joy were closed off, forcing artists and other creatives to concentrate on exploring whatever unlit underpasses, bungalowed cul-de-sacs and flyblown suburban shopping precincts (and vanished local public service megaliths) were close at hand. The result in Rowan’s project with Francis and Dodds is a tight and concise, yet also ambitiously expansive, creative exploration of change in the urban realm.

It is something of a truism (and I admit that I have played my own small part in making it so from time-to-time), that Birmingham is a city in constant flux, compelled – in terms a psycho geographer might be moved to utilise – to atavistically seek out the new and compulsively remake itself. 

Insofar as the often inchoate towns and cities of West Midlands county like to tell origins stories about themselves, it is typically flows that their Romulus and Remus were all manner of smiths and jobbing mineral extractors. People who flocked to lightly policed countryside in the chaotically administered boundary country, far from the county towns of Warwick, Stafford and Worcester, and relatively outside the grasp of barons, clergy and the central state, to merrily go about digging coal, quarrying clay, and bashing metal (and not infrequently each other) to their heart’s content. Moving on to the next seam, vein or watercourse when the old one ran out, clogged up, or the demands of officialdom got too great. 

There is a strong element of myth to this origin story, and like all such simplifying schema it elides much nuance for all it reveals about general trends. Yet it remains broadly correct at a fundamental level. The West Midlands’ libertarian streak lends itself to a pragmatic, open minded and frequently live and let live attitude which is welcoming to new ideas, people and cultures. However, perhaps it is the frustrations encountered when your ego lends itself to reckoning you are cut out for having a shot at governing such a place, that has led to the region producing an outsized number of the UK’s incipient authoritarians. 

Joseph Chamberlain, Oswald Mosley and Enoch Powell, all cut their political teeth in and around Birmingham. And this tendency has likely changed rather than abated in recent years. By which I do not necessarily only mean the political trajectory adopted by Nick Land after he quit the University of Warwick. To this day the joke runs that “the only thing to the right of the Black Country Tories is Black Country Labour”.

This conjures to mind Owen Hatherley’s description of Birmingham, drawing upon the work of Ellen Meiksins-Wood on transitions to capitalism, as representing “the pristine culture of capitalism”. 

As Hatherley elaborates, other British cities were shaped well into the 20th Century by non-capitalist elements which were weak or non-existent in Birmingham. The development of Manchester, Glasgow, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle was mediated by the struggle between a well organised and assertive labour movement and small groups of big factory and transport owners, enabling organised workers to have their needs catered for in the development of their city. Whilst in Birmingham by contrast the labour movement remained divided and fairly irrelevant up until the late 1960s and 1970s, by which point the basis for its power was in the process of eroding away as capitalism rattled into its intangible and neo-liberal phase. Older cities such as York, Canterbury, Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh, saw traditional power groupings: landed elites, civic societies and the church – social clusters which had never had much purchase in the West Midlands – retain much of their traditional power into the second half of the 20th Century, shaping the development of those cities. In a few places such as Bristol, Coventry and London the power of organised labour and that of older forms of non-capitalist power, were arrayed in interesting constellations, something which also served to shape the development and character of those cities.

The relevance of this backstory for Paradise 1974-2016, is that it serves to explain the unusual story of how Birmingham came to commission and – partially – construct a megalithic civic centre in the early 1970s. As Francis relates in his essay accompanying Rowan’s images the Paradise Street area where Madin’s Central Library was constructed was incorporated into the city centre fairly late. Adopting a focus upon a patch of land that cannot be more than a dozen acres in size, that is practically Braudelian, he reveals that with the exception of the Town Hall which was an early arrival in 1830, the area around Victoria and Chamberlain Squares were considered scruffy wasteland well into the 19th Century.

The character of the area began changing in the 1870s and 1880s. In suitably laissez-faire fashion the City Council contributed Birmingham’s (second) main public library to the square, as well as the Council House and Museum and Art Gallery, whilst voluntary organisations like Mason College, the Liberal Club and Birmingham Midland Institute also erected premises around the square. This gave Birmingham a fairly hastily built, and architecturally quite catholic, civic quarter akin to those of other great cities of the industrial revolution in northern England and elsewhere.

As Francis rightly exposes, much of the wealth that paid for this self aggrandising construction boom, was extracted under often thinly veiled threat of military intervention by colonised people from subjugated lands in the Global South. This exploitation fed raw material into the brutal work regime of the factories, foundries and mines of the West Midlands region that further produced surplus value for the small coterie of industrialists, traders and their attendants that graced the new buildings around Victoria and Chamberlain Squares. Spoken for in Parliament by political dynasties such as the Chamberlains who favoured moderately welfarist policies at home and brutal imperial expansion and exploitation overseas, it cannot be denied that few cities were more pro-imperial, or benefited from empire more, than Birmingham.

Our country teaches its children that after the Second World War colonised peoples gained their independence and exploitation and social strife were significantly ameliorated at home by the establishment of a comprehensive welfare state and other social reforms. On paper both of these things are true. In reality the Cold War, and after was a bleak time for the Global South, during which some forms of extraction benefiting the Global North actually increased. Likewise, in Birmingham the immediate postwar era was a relatively prosperous one. But brought with it: property speculators who remodelled much of the city centre in the pursuit of profit, the atrophying of the city’s industrial base, and housing and transport projects which whilst often well intentioned became – aided and abetted by a corrupt council in hock to the construction industry – an opportunity for private gain in return for a shoddy public realm.

The era of formal mass democracy (prior to 1950 British elections were not run on the principle of one person, one vote, so the country was not a modern representative democracy) required a new style, one suited to the mass consumer society that was taking shape in the Global North after World War II. While the burgeoning public sector which both restrained and smoothed the way for capital accumulation, needed more office space, in an era when public administration still required acres of filing cabinets and pools of typists to create the memos that filled them. 

John Madin’s Central Library which opened in 1974 was intended as a solution to both these problems. Intended as just one part of a new civic centre housing various functions of the Council, ultimately only the library service sections, some office space serving as overflow for the Council House and a conservatoire for Birmingham Polytechnic were built. The planned central bus station (something Birmingham still sorely lacks), sports centre and civic gardens that were supposed – London Barbican like – to ring and soften the brute concrete of the central megalithic components of the structure, were not completed. They fell victim to the strong inflation of the mid-1970s taking a hatchet to real terms local authority spending power. 

This section of the story is told through the work of Derek Fairbrother. He was an industrial chemist who moved to Birmingham as a young man in the 1950s and lived in the city until his death in 1999. As Ian Francis’ text explains in a short biographical sketch, Fairbrother was a gently eccentric man of the old school, fascinated by the world of machinery and the urban realm that he encountered in Birmingham, and devoted to creatively documenting it as best he could with the technology of the mid and late 20th Century. 

Prior to reading Paradise 1974-2016 I was only vaguely familiar with his work. In contrast to the not dissimilar material created by the University of Birmingham Extramural Department Geography Lecturer Phyllis Nicklin in the 1950s and 1960s, Fairbrother’s work has had quite a limited circulation to date. It was filed at the Library of Birmingham by his family after his death, and unlike Nicklin’s work which resurfaced in the 1990s and 2000s when it was digitised and added to the nascent world wide web, where it remains and is often pilfered (including by me on occasion), Fairbrother’s remains locked away in the archive. Some of his work featured in an exhibition called Birmingham Seen mounted by the Library of Birmingham’s legendary former curator of photography Pete James in 2009. But aside from that outing Paradise 1974-2016 is doing everyone a favour by bringing Fairbrother and his work out into the open. 

Fairbrother’s photographs taken in Paradise Circus between 1964 and 1986 document the final days of the old Mason College building, which was derelict after the humanities departments of the University of Birmingham relocated in the Arts Building on the Edgbaston campus, and the Birmingham Liberal Club, an obsolete monument to defunct Victorian progressivism and hollow self help doctrines. His sequence continues throughout the 1960s as both buildings have hoardings erected around them and are demolished, leaving gaps peering across to Baskerville House and what is today Centenary Square. Presently as the 1960s grinds into the 1970s the distinctive ziggurat of Birmingham Central Library steadily rises up from behind the builder’s hoardings.

The corner of the old Birmingham Free Library erected at the end of 1870s is just about visible in the edge of some of Fairbrother’s photographs. Shortly after the hoardings come down from around the stark new Central Library this fiddly looking veteran structure, looking rather like a knock off of the Albert Hall, also vanishes. Fairbrother’s sequence continues for a few more frames, evidently taken less frequently, throughout the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s. It concludes shortly before the early 1990s semi-refurbishment of the building which fully pedestrianised and tidied up Chamberlain Square somewhat, and capped the Central Library’s ziggurat with an absurd quasi crystal palace looking flat cap, transforming it into an atrium housing a third rate food court.

In this way Fairbrother’s photographs set the scene for the final third of the book which consists of Rowan’s photographs of the demolition of the Central Library, and the construction of the Paradise office/leisure development. They, and other sequences like it which apparently exist, such as the construction of the Symphony Hall and ICC, are a rare and important record of change, having been created during a not to distant time when urban redevelopment happened relatively slowly compared to now, and when photography was a much more difficult process, meaning that it was far less common than is the case today. 

Ian Francis’ research for the project uncovered that Fairbrother’s vision when he created these sequences was to use a cine camera to make short films. This did not happen, although apparently he did give slideshow presentations about his study of Birmingham’s shifting urban form up until shortly before his death. So far one timelapse film utilising his slides has been created (by Ian Francis for the 2009 Birmingham Seen exhibition, see below). One day hopefully more will be. They are just one example of the incredible things which sit, currently almost unseen, in Birmingham’s globally significant photography collection.

Paradise Birmingham Timelapse (Ian Francis, 2009)

David Rowan’s sequence of photographs were created from a vantage point near the Museum and Art Gallery not dissimilar to Derek Fairbrother’s. Rowan works as the Birmingham Museum Trust’s documentation photographer. When work began to demolish the Central library he realised he had a ringside seat of where the building was coming down. From his perch in the annex of the Museum and Art Gallery complex he resolved to document the destruction of the exhilarating, but flawed municipal megalith.

In a cycle of photographs taken from his work studio, Rowan captures the process of the building coming down, and the beginning of work on the Paradise office blocks which have replaced it. These wide images of work on the site are interspersed with frames that capture the demolition and construction work from different angles, as well as close-ups of other aspects of the works underway. 

The images have an epic quality to them. Like Fairbrother’s pictures of the previous round of destruction and building in Chamberlain Square they are presented sequentially. There is a definite grandeur to the record of the demolition of John Madin’s Central Library, something that is undoubtedly conspicuous in its absence from the buildings which are depicted replacing it in the final pages of the book.

There is something of the ruins of a medieval castle, or some other great centuries old building about the partially destroyed Central Library. This effect is partially due to the qualities akin to a fort or ancient temple, that evidently formed the inspiration for the best parts of the megalithic structure. It is also down to Rowan’s ability to capture the light playing off the building as it slowly disappeared through the constant vibrations of jackhammers and into the maws of the concrete crushers. 

His work displays a certain grim, wry irony as the various bodges and adaptations inflicted during the life of the building (the cringe-inducing white metal and glass flat cap cupola being just one of them), shatter and crumble as soon as touched during the demolition. Whilst the hard concrete and steel superstructure of the building, which could potentially survive for thousands of years if exposed to the elements, prove infinitely harder to destroy. 

More poignantly, in images which humanise the vast brute structure, Rowan’s work picks on the human traces of the librarians and other municipal servants who toiled for nearly 4  decades in the building. Fiddly glass and chromium staircases, no doubt once the pride and joy of some department head or director when installed, or the slightly unusual painted decor choices made by sections of the library’s workforce for their offices and workspaces, are exposed to the elements, alongside the miles of ducts and wiring that kept the building functioning.

These photographs also pick out the graffiti and street art, some no doubt endorsed by the Council, others clearly not, that covered parts of the structure. This includes a yellow spray painted slogan “Shame on the Villa” visible on a breeze block wall inside the upper part of the ziggurat structure. Put there by an intrepid or foolhardy urban explorer after the building closed, or was undergoing demolition perhaps, however, it is probably more likely that some unknowable acolyte of St. Andrews painted it there during the building’s lifetime. 

Likewise, Rowan’s lens returns repeatedly to a graffiti mural of a series of superheroes including Spider Man. From the style of the drawing it seems likely that these characters were painted with the agreement of the Council, if not actually commissioned by them, as they sometimes commissioned artists to engage with the structure as canvas in the latter years of its life. Rowan’s photographs pick out this element of graffiti as the demolition draws nearer, capturing it in an increasingly dilapidated and dust covered state as its end approaches. It is elements like this which speak to the life of the building, the hundreds of people who worked there, and the hundreds of thousands who regularly passed through it and used its services, not least the waves of youth subcultures which until “anti-social behaviour” crackdowns in the 2000s dispersed them, made the Central Library’s precincts and subways their stomping ground.

It is easy and well justified, to be cynical about the post-war settlement that created the Central Library. However, for all its imperfections and hidden brutality it is impossible to consider our own moment, signified by the privatised, corporatised zone of the new Paradise development as an improvement. Indeed as Ian Francis writes briefly in his essay, it is entirely possible that such homogenised office developments have had their day, meaning that the area has once again been redeveloped again just at the moment when the social settlement that gave rise to it is breaking down. He is also right to note that Birmingham is behind other British cities such as Bristol, or Glasgow when it comes to acknowledging and confronting connections to the UK’s history of imperialism and colonisation. Whilst their place in the history of the city is secure, it is surely time that we considered how exactly we would like to remember figures like Joseph Chamberlain, James Watt and their legacies. 

These are questions which the rather dull Paradise redevelopment would rather we forgot about, and just kept shopping and clocking into work, keeping their asset prices and renta yields high. I may yet be proven wrong but it seems unlikely to me that in the 2040s, or whenever the squat glass towers of Paradise are torn down to make way for something new, that a future Rowan or Faurbrother will take the time to record their disappearance. Not least because they may struggle to get much human interest out of them at all. 

Fundamentally the story of the three Paradise developments to grace the area in the last 150 years is the story of changes to Britain’s social and economic make-up. The first Paradise where local business tycoons, their acolytes and off-spring could show off the scale of their newly extracted and agglomerated wealth. A second Paradise created at a time when big civic and regional capitalists had largely been supplanted by national corporations, but when the economy was still resolutely based upon making things in places like Birmingham, allowing liberally minded bureaucrats and professionals to reshape chunks of the city centre in what they considered to be tidier and more rational ways. Today’s third Paradise reflects a city which has become becalmed in a firmly established, global, homogenised stream of capital accumulation. The new development reflects a moment when the economy has become distorted and based upon pure abstraction. Smooth, modularly constructed offices, chain bars and restaurants for the regional administrators of accountancy and property management companies. 

In provoking these questions, and helping us take stock in the ever shifting urban kaleidoscope that is Birmingham, Paradise 1974-2016, alongside other recent works such as Andy Howlett’s film Paradise Lost, History in the Unmaking, are a useful way of trying to mentally fix in place and put into context the changes of the recent past which have transformed the city.

“Paradise 1974-2016” is avaliable to buy from the Flatpack Projects online shop