Concrete Paradise / from the archive / issue 4

Roy Fisher’s ‘City’, published in 1962, is a poem at once expansive and juddery, at once bruised and furiously ruthless. The urban shudders and reconstructions that the piece traverses are introduced so:

On one of the steep slopes that rise towards the centre of the city all the buildings have been destroyed within the past year: a whole district of the tall narrow houses that spilled out from what were a hundred years ago outlying factories has gone. The streets remain, among the rough quadrilaterals of brick rubble, veering awkwardly towards one another through nothing; at night their rounded surfaces still shine under the irregularly-set gaslamps, and tonight they dully reflect also the yellowish flare, diffused and baleful, that hangs in the clouds a few hundred feet above the city’s invisible heart.

The ‘half-built towers’ that stud the ‘bombed city’ are themselves structures threatened by the ‘perfections of tomorrow’; their mouths momentarily gape open as if stunned, but they, too, will soon be ‘stoppered’. In a city assembled from ‘soot, sunlight, brick-dust; and the breath that tastes of them’, it is easy enough to ‘lie women in your bed / With glass and mortar in their hair’, but whether their trashy tiaras are made from the detritus left by wartime shelling, or by machines sent in by developers, or by slums that have begun to blister and shed themselves of their own accord, it is difficult to tell. If the poem’s speaker is worried about becoming a ‘cemetery of performance’, then so too is the city he speaks of. ‘There is’, the poem spits, ‘no mind in it, no regard. […] Most of it has never been seen’.   

The ‘invisible heart’ of this unseen, unthinking ‘City’ is in fact the ‘Heart of England’: the Industrial Revolution’s vital organ and Fisher’s own place of birth. Birmingham’s industriousness, in other words, is Fisher’s generative material, and Birmingham’s industry has clearly had massive implications for its urban form as well. In the cityscape that came into being in the early nineteenth century, and which persisted into the 1960s, small manufactories and workshops rasped and sweated in structures indistinguishable from abodes. In the early twentieth century, big industries such as car building generated far larger factories and line after line of tunnel-back terraces. The city’s embrace of the opportunities for slum clearance and municipal redevelopment facilitated both by successive Town Planning Acts and the devastations of WW2 resulted in a cityscape actively and drastically altered: flats and houses equipped with toilets and running water superseded the spawning clusters of back-to-backs; zooming bypasses and ring roads built for automobiles sent pedestrians underground, and sometimes up and over. The tangle of motorway interchanges that is Spaghetti Junction is the location most deserving of Birmingham’s popular assignation as a concrete jungle. In combination, these transformations have earned Fisher’s unthinking city a reputation that is unthinkingly reeled out repeatedly. Birmingham is ugly. Birmingham is brutal.

The city’s current authorities appear to agree. The general disdain towards Birmingham’s ‘ugliness’, its concrete brutality, is often implicitly participated in by the city itself. True to its motto of ‘Forward’, adopted following incorporation in 1838, Birmingham is once more in the business of demolition and redevelopment. The building that currently best epitomizes this process is Birmingham Central Library, an inverted ziggurat designed by the Birmingham-born architect John Madin[1], who died in January. It opened, as the largest library in Europe at the time, in 1974. Initially conceived of as part of an ambitious but ultimately unrealised civic complex, the structure has since accumulated its own detritus. Located in a core area of the city called ‘Paradise Circus’, the library’s once open-air interior atrium – a feature that allowed the reading rooms to be illuminated with natural light – has been boxed in and stoppered with fast-food counters and shops. The view of the ziggurat formation from the adjacent plaza, Centenary Square, has been strangled by a nearby hotel, whilst signs and hoardings infest a pre-stressed concrete façade that was once assuredly unornamented. Despite being the UK’s second most visited library in 2010-2011, the building now is, the authorities claim, unfit for its contemporary purpose; a new facility is in construction nearby. The Central Library itself seems fated to be expelled from paradise.

The city’s resolve to erase a building so unabashedly Brutalist in architectural style is without doubt tangled up with Birmingham’s industrial legacy and its ongoing negotiation with its designation as ‘ugly’. In Fisher’s ‘City’, ‘the straight white blocks and concrete roadways’ already built by the 1960s are ‘a fairground, a clear dream just before walking’ and even ‘a little ingratiating’. It is, by contrast, the older cityscape of ‘workhouses and […] hospitals, the thick-walled abattoir, the long-vaulted market-halls, the striding canal-bridges and railway viaducts’ that is seen to amount to ‘an arrogant ponderous architecture’ – one that ‘dwarfed and terrified the people by its sheer size’ and ‘functional brutality’.

Brutality, ‘City’ teaches us, is to be found in the chasm between a building’s aesthetic attitude and its social corollary and context. Brutalism is something different: a response, an enunciation, a revolution of existing conditions. In terms of its provision of public space, facilities and possibility, Madin’s building was a pioneer. In Fisher’s 1960s poem, Birmingham’s ‘towering and stony’ ‘great station’ – Curzon Street Station, possibly – has become a ‘goods depot with most of its doors barred’, but its ghost remains: ‘They are too afraid of it to pull it down’. In 2012, the authorities are all too eager to disassemble Birmingham’s ‘functional brutality’ – a brutality they mistakenly locate not in ‘workhouses’ and ‘thick-walled abattoirs’, but instead in a Brutalist library.

 

Roy Fisher’s ‘City’ (1962) is collected in Poems 1955-1980 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980)

Honor Gavin is a writer, musician, and founding member of whenwebuildagain.org, a collective who take their name from an influential piece of research into housing issues and conditions in Birmingham in the late 1930s.

 

[1] Book review of John Madin by Alan Clowley, RIBA Publishing, features in the modernist issue 2

© Honor Gavin

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 4 'BRUTAL'