Category Archives: Twentieth-century architecture

Beneath the City Streets

BT Tower, Fitzrovia, London

I’ve always been interested in the rumours, urban legends and hard evidence for secret government installations underground, both in urban settings and in remote country areas, quietly inserted before, during and particularly after the Second World War, ever since I first read Peter Laurie’s book, Beneath the City Streets (Allen Lane 1970), shortly after it was published.

Peter Laurie (b 1937), a freelance journalist, had written an article for the Sunday Times in 1967 about how wartime civil defence had been transformed, with hardly any public attention, ostensibly in response to the peculiar threats of nuclear warfare.

He became sufficiently intrigued to develop his research as a hobby, which he published as a book which ran to two editions.

He concluded that “civil defence in its higher manifestations deals with the brute realities of government…it encases the central essence of political power”.

All this he accomplished on paper, using information that was in the public domain, stringing together data sometimes from unlikely sources, such as the GPO trunk dialling codes and the London Underground map, and throwing up facts that fascinated me at the time.

He pointed out quirks in the alignments of the horn aerials of the GPO microwave system that, while providing the nation with colour television signals, bent back and forth to serve as an impenetrable communication system between sites that would protect government and military operations in the event of warfare or civil unrest. 

He showed that the locations of the GPO towers at Bagshot and Stokenchurch were aligned with RAF Medmenham, a secret installation at Warren Row (identified by the Spies for Peace [Spies for Peace – Wikipedia] in 1963) and the RAF Staff College Bracknell.  Each site had sufficient altitude to tap into the microwave signal overhead making them independent of more vulnerable underground cables.

He drew attention to the existence of Second World War facilities in the underground quarries adjacent to Box Tunnel on the Great Western main line, providing easy transportation for an emergency evacuation from central London and from Windsor to National Seat of Government under the village of Box [Closely-guarded secret | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times].

Much of this infrastructure subsequently became outmoded, and some of it is now common knowledge.  Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms, for instance, is a celebrated attraction:  Visit Churchill War Rooms – Plan Your Visit | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk).

Nuclear bunkers are open to the public in York [York Cold War Bunker | English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk)], Cheshire [Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker], Holderness [Home – Home (visitthebunker.com)] and Essex [The Secret Nuclear Bunker – Kelvedon Hatch – Kelvedon Hatch – Secret Nuclear Bunker].  Another is under restoration in Edinburgh [Barnton Quarry Rotor SOC and Regional Seat of Government – Subterranea Britannica (subbrit.org.uk)].

Others, rarely mentioned in the public domain, may still be operational:  Hidden depths at Manchester’s Arndale Centre | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.

Peter Laurie’s book has long been out of print, though copies are still available [Beneath the City Streets: 9780140033816: Amazon.com: Books], and the content is inevitably dated, but it remains worth reading for insights into the effort expended to preserve government control, and the ubiquity of secret activity hiding in plain sight.

Super cinema

Plaza Cinema, Stockport

One of the most enjoyable residential leisure-learning weekends I’ve ever had the pleasure to lead was ‘Dream Palaces:  an introduction to cinema architecture’ in November 2004 for the now-closed and much-lamented Wedgwood Memorial College at Barlaston, near Stoke-on-Trent.

The College was blessed with a cosy atmosphere, an eclectic selection of subjects for study, staff who alike knew the regular students and welcomed newcomers, and home cooking.

The centrepiece of my two-day programme of talks, videos and slide presentations was a half-day trip to visit the Plaza Cinema, Stockport, a magnificent example of an early-Thirties super-cinema, designed by William Thornley and a near twin of his Regal, Altrincham, which opened in 1931 and burnt down in 1956.

The Plaza is unusual in that it’s built into a cliff, its façade facing Mersey Square, once the gathering place for the town’s trams and buses.  Much of the 1,800-seat auditorium is practically underground.  In an evacuation, some members of the audience go upstairs to the emergency exits rather than down.

The interior displays an eclectic mixture of Egyptian, classical, Moorish and Art Deco features of unusual richness:  the original decorative scheme was dominated by the burnished silver dome, lit by a Holophane system of 6,000 variable coloured lights. 

The three-manual, eleven-rank Compton organ, like its sister at the Regal, Altrincham, was built to the specification of Norman Cocker, deputy organist at Manchester Cathedral, and was the very first Compton organ to have an illuminated console.

The Plaza opened in on Friday October 6th 1932, showing Laurel and Hardy in Jailbirds and Jessie Matthews in Out of the Blue.  Its prominent central site protected it from increased competition in its early years and from the inexorable decline of cinema audiences in the 1950s, even though its nearest large competitors belonged to national first-release circuits. 

It was bought by the Mecca Group in 1965, and after initial opposition from Stockport Borough Council a replacement bingo club opened on February 6th 1967.  The stage machinery was removed in 1989 to increase the bingo playing-area, and for a time the café operated as a night-club. Because the building was used as a bingo club until 1998 the auditorium was never subdivided, and its intact interior was in sufficiently good condition to merit Grade II listing.

Even before the closure of the bingo operation, an active campaign for preservation led to the founding of the Friends of the Plaza, an energetic group of volunteers supporting the Stockport Plaza Trust, whose campaign, in turn backed by Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, English Heritage and the National Trust, has provided the town with a venue for live performances, recitals and films.

The Trust took possession in March 2000.  Six months later the listing was upgraded to II*, and on October 7th 2000 the building returned to public use.

In 2009, the Plaza closed for a comprehensive £3,200,000 refurbishment, and reopened on 11th December the same year with a cine/variety show, similar to its original 1932 opening show, featuring Gold Diggers of 1933, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in Towed in a Hole, soprano Marilyn Hill-Smith leading a tribute to Gracie Fields with the Plaza Orchestra, and Richard Hills playing the Compton organ.

When my Wedgwood Memorial College group visited a month before Christmas 2004, after a behind-the-scenes tour we joined an audience for Holiday Inn, the film for which Irving Berlin wrote ‘White Christmas’, together with a period newsreel, Pearl & Dean advertisements, the Compton organ, the lady with the ice-cream tray and, at the very end, we all stood up for The Queen.

There could hardly a better prelude to Christmas – all in the cause of adult continuing education. 

Learning should be fun.

Sad end for the Wakefield Regal

Wakefield Regal/ABC/Cannon Cinema, West Yorkshire (June 2021)

Though Wakefield can be justifiably proud of the preservation and continued flourishing of the Theatre Royal, its best surviving cinema building has come to a sticky end.

The Regal Cinema at the junction of Kirkgate and Sun Lane was opened on December 9th 1935 by the Associated British Picture Corporation. 

It was designed by ABC’s house architect, William R Glen, in the instantly recognisable modern style that most people know as Art Deco.  To the left of the corner entrance, the walls swept in a graceful curve following the alignment of Sun Lane.

The interior had the characteristics of thirties design – bold curves, concealed lighting and a 43-foot wide proscenium framing what in those days was a standard Academy-ratio screen. 

In fact, though it only seated 1,594 at the outset – mid-range in comparison with other contemporary urban cinemas – the stage was 26 feet deep, providing space for major drama or dance productions.

Its later history was similar to many other town cinemas – rebranded as ABC in 1962, tripled by inserting two small screens in the stalls under the balcony in 1976, sold to the Cannon group in 1986.  It closed in 1997, shortly after a major Cineworld multiplex opened in the town.

A covenant requiring the building to remain in cinema use inhibited any possibility of adaptive re-use.

The building rotted while proposals to convert it into flats in 2007 or to demolish it to make way for a new apartment building in 2013 came to nothing. 

Urban explorers in 2007 found that the basement was flooded and the front stalls were under eighteen inches of water:  Report – – Wakefield ABC – Regal cinema 13/12/07 | Theatres and Cinemas | 28DaysLater.co.uk

Eventually Wakefield Borough Council bought it in 2020, in desperation that a fine building which had become an eyesore would before long become a hazard.

A rearguard action by an energetic Friends group, supported by the Cinema Theatre Association, tried unsuccessfully to convince the Council there was any future for the building or its façade, but a “non-obtrusive structural survey” concluded that demolition would be safer before it began to fall down.  

In June 2021 the Council resolved to flatten it to create a temporary “green space” until a replacement structure, designed to “celebrate” Glen’s 1930s design, could be built.

Italian job

Lingotto Building, Turin, Italy: former test track

It’s not feasible to travel by train from Florence to London within a day.

When I took the Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ tour [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany]  our return journey was broken at Turin.

As we drove through the Turin suburbs our guide Caroline mentioned that our hotel, the Nh Lingotto Congress [https://www.nh-hotels.com/hotel/nh-torino-lingotto-congress], was a conversion of a former Fiat car factory.  I’d vaguely heard about an Italian car factory turned into a hotel but I was unprepared for the luxurious splendour to which we were treated.

The building is a lengthy concrete-framed oblong with an elegant façade, built 1916-23 to the designs of Giacomo Matté-Trucco (1869-1934), originally the Fiat company’s in-house architect and engineer, but in private practice by the time he conceived the Lingotto factory.

When car production ceased in 1982 its renovation was entrusted to the Genoese architect Renzo Piano (b 1937), already well-known for collaborating with Richard Rodgers on the Centre Georges Pompidou (1971-77) in Paris and latterly famous for the Shard (2000-2012) at London Bridge.

Piano’s scheme embraces an exhibition centre (1992), an auditorium (1994), two hotels (1995) and a shopping centre.  The site includes a helipad and an art gallery stocked with pieces from the collection of Giovanni and Marella Agnelli:  Giovanni Agnelli (1921-2003) was customarily known as Gianni to distinguish him from his grandfather and namesake (1866-1945), the founder of the Fiat company.

The hotel lobby is cool and modern, and the space within the outer wings of the factory buildings is filled with a dense jungle visible through glazed walls.  The bedrooms are beautifully finished, reflecting the calibre of the designer, using the high ceilings of the original factory design, spacious and comfortable.

Although I felt hot and exhausted I couldn’t resist exploring, and by the time I’d showered and had some lunch other tour-guests were insisting I should go to the roof to see the “race-track”. 

The key to the complex is the shopping mall, 8 (Italian number ‘otto’, echoing ‘Lingotto’).  Among the shop units is the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, where a haughty young lady behind a desk pointed towards a lift which took me up four storeys to another even more haughty female who pointed me towards a further lift which carried me to the fifth-floor art gallery and the roof.

The bijou art-gallery is a delight, containing a couple of Canova sculptures and a series of paintings by Canaletto, Bellotto, Renoir, Manet, Matisse and Picasso.  No British shopping centre can boast such a life-enhancing experience above the shops.

Only when I walked on to the sunlit roof did I realise that the so-called race-track was not visible from the roof, it was the roof – an intact and well-preserved test-track, designed to run cars at 90kph at a time when the normal top speed was 70kph, with alarmingly banked curves at each end.  It features in The Italian Job (1969).

Back at shop level I got lost, which was a benefit because I came upon the helical ramp which runs through the building to give cars access to the roof. 

When I read it all up in Wikipedia Italian (in English translation, naturally,) I discovered that the raw materials were brought in at ground level, presumably from the nearby rail line, and cars were assembled as they moved upwards through the building until they emerged complete and road-ready on the roof – the exact opposite of the process in the Studebaker Building in midtown Chicago.

There’s an excellent video-essay on the Lingotto factory at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciscQuVD5vo.

New cinema history

Former Odeon Cinema, Flat Street, Sheffield (1993)

It pleases me to have books on my bookshelf that were written by people I know.

I met Sam Manning at the 2015 Picture House Revival weekend that Hand Of created to relaunch the Abbeydale Picture Palace as a cinema after it had been closed for forty years.

Sam was at the time doing postgraduate research into cinema-going in Sheffield and Belfast between 1945 and 1965, and asked me to contribute an oral-history interview to his PhD thesis.

That research is now published as Cinemas and Cinema-Going in the United Kingdom:  decades of decline, 1945-65 (University of London Press 2020), and I couldn’t resist buying a paperback edition. You can preview it as a .pdf file at https://humanities-digital-library.org/index.php/hdl/catalog/book/cinema-going.

I’ve never been to Belfast, so that aspect of his writing was new territory for me, but the Sheffield sections relate to my childhood memories and my more recent local-history research.

Sam writes as part of the “new cinema history” movement [https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137337016_7], which seeks to place the contemporary experience of going to the pictures in the wider context of social history in the first sixty-five years of the twentieth century.

This extends the ubiquitous nostalgia accounts of the generation that knew or worked in cinemas until the 1960s and the analyses of cinema architecture, the business history of the industry and the endless literature of films and film-makers that have appeared in recent decades.

On the local level, I learned a great deal because Sam has done the legwork of surveying the surviving archives of individual cinemas against city-wide data from local newspapers, government and industry records and oral-history evidence.

He revises the long-held view that suburban cinema-going was killed by the advent of television.  There were other significant factors in play – increasing affluence, flight from inner-city slums to new housing estates and the rise of a generation of young people who thought they’d invented “teenage”, the generation commemorated in Cliff Richard’s hit ‘The Young Ones’ (1962).

He also explains a counterintuitive feature of Sheffield’s post-war cinema history, the building on Flat Street of one of the few post-war Odeon cinemas, later followed by a luxurious ABC on Angel Street.

In the 1930s, when three major chains – Odeon, Gaumont and ABC – dominated the national industry, Sheffield’s cinemas were largely owned by local companies.  Gaumont British Theatres took over the Regent in 1929, two years after it opened, and in 1931 ABC leased the Hippodrome, a variety theatre dating back to 1907, which they gave up in 1948.  Neither invested in the sort of super-cinema that is the villain of the piece in the film The Smallest Show on Earth (1957).

The Odeon chain leased a site at the junction of Flat Street and Norfolk Street in 1933, and after a five-year delay the architects Harry Weedon and W Calder Robson designed a 2,326-seat cinema, four shops and a three-storey office block.  Construction began in March 1939 and quickly came to a halt at the outbreak of the Second World War.

The post-war realignment of Sheffield’s proposed inner ring road, later known as Arundel Gate, meant redesigning the Odeon on a smaller footprint. 

When building restrictions were removed in 1954 the pre-war steelwork was dismantled and the new cinema, without the intended shops and offices, was built to a completely fresh design by Harry Weedon and Robert Bullivant.

This design featured a 55-foot screen and seated 2,319 – 1,505 in the stalls and 814 in the balcony. Lighting in the auditorium was by three rows of fittings hanging close to the ceiling and from concealed lights in the two decorative panels each side of the proscenium.  Sheffield had seen nothing like it before.

The new Odeon opened on July 16th 1956 with the newly-released Kenneth More feature-film Reach for the Sky, attended by the Deputy Lord Mayor, Ald Joseph Curtis, the managing director of the Rank Organisation, John Davis, and his wife, film star Dinah Sheridan, accompanied by the Dagenham Girl Pipers, state trumpeters from the York & Lancaster Regiment and a contingent of service personnel from RAF Norton.

In November 1958 the Odeon was equipped to show Todd-AO wide-screen films with stereophonic sound so that it could specialise in long runs of blockbuster movies. 

By the mid-1960s, cinema-going habits had changed radically.  The Sound of Music on first release ran from October 3rd 1965 until February 1967.  It was immediately followed by Khartoum (1966). 

For a short period of slightly less than two years, there were four high-quality 70mm screens in the city.  The new ABC had a 60ft screen from its opening on May 18th 1961.  The 70ft screen at the Gaumont was first used on July 23rd 1969 and the smaller screen at Gaumont 2 followed in October of the same year.

The Odeon closed on June 5th 1971 at the end of a further fourteen-month run of The Sound of Music and reopened in September of the same year as a Top Rank bingo hall, later rebranded as Mecca.

The Gaumont closed on November 7th 1985, followed by the ABC on July 28th 1988.  Both buildings were demolished.

St John’s Beacon

St John’s Beacon, Liverpool

The story of how a chimney gained the incongruous name St John’s Beacon is a saga of unwise planning decisions.

In the days when the town of Liverpool clustered around its seven medieval streets, close to the bank of the Mersey, the rising ground to the east was used for windmills, lime-kilns and the public drying of laundry, until in 1767 an area was enclosed to provide a burial ground with a small mortuary chapel, which was quickly replaced between 1775 and 1784 by St John’s Parish Church, designed in a loosely applied Gothic style by Timothy Lightoller, with a capacity of 1,500 sittings.

Harvey Lonsdale Elmes’ St George’s Hall was begun on the plateau immediately east of St John’s Church in 1841, and its west façade was left plain because it stood uncomfortably close to Lightoller’s undistinguished church.

When the Anglican Diocese of Liverpool was established in 1880 its Pro-Cathedral was the cramped parish church of St Peter, Church Street, which had been consecrated in 1704.   In 1885 the diocese obtained its Liverpool Cathedral Act, authorising construction on the site of St John’s Parish Church, but it became obvious that any of the submitted designs would have come uncomfortably close to St George’s Hall, and the Cathedral Committee, in admission of their misjudgement, quietly abandoned the whole scheme the following year.

St John’s Church was closed in 1898 and immediately demolished, and the churchyard was landscaped as a memorial garden which, with one exception, commemorated recently deceased public figures associated with the city.  St John’s Gardens opened in 1904.

Among the crowded streets south-west of St John’s Church, John Foster Jnr had built the indoor St John’s Market, opened in 1822, for meat, fruit and vegetables, with wholesale and retail fish markets adjacent.  One of the earliest examples of a covered market, it covered nearly two acres – “183 yards long and 45 yards broad” with “136 stone-trimmed classical arched window bays, supported by 116 interior cast-iron pillars” – “the largest of its kind in the kingdom…erected by the corporation at an expense of £35,296”, and lit at night by 144 gas burners.  The American painter John James Audobon described it as “an object worth the attention of all traveller strangers, it is thus far the finest building I have ever seen”.

By the mid-twentieth century, Foster’s market had become grubby and archaic, and without much debate it was replaced by a six-acre development comprising a replacement covered market, two levels of shop units, a hotel and a multi-storey car park, designed by the Birmingham architect, James A Roberts (1922-2019), whose work in his home city includes the Rotunda (1965). 

The new St John’s Market obliterated a complex pattern of small streets, leaving the much-altered former Star Theatre, now Liverpool Playhouse (Edward Davies, 1866;  Harry Percival, 1898;  Stanley D Adshead, 1911;  extended by Hall, O’Donohue & Wilson 1968), on Williamson Square, and the Royal Court Theatre (1881;  James Bushell Hutchins 1938) as outliers. 

Joseph Sharples, in the Pevsner Architectural Guide Liverpool (Yale University Press 2004) is scathing about the entire precinct – “…a bleak and brutal affair, monolithic, inward looking and awkwardly related to the different levels of the adjoining streets”.  He dismisses the early 1990s refurbishment by Bradshaw, Rowse & Harker as “prettification”. 

The one redeeming feature, rivalling Jim Roberts’ Birmingham Rotunda as a civic icon, is the St John’s Beacon, 450 feet high, the chimney to the centre’s heating system, distinguished by a revolving restaurant, closed in the 1970s and converted into a radio station c1999. The observation platform of St John’s Beacon offers one of the three best views of Merseyside, the other two being the Vestey Tower of the Anglican Cathedral and the tower of Birkenhead Priory, looking back to Liverpool from across the Mersey:  https://www.visitliverpool.com/things-to-do/st-johns-beacon-radio-city-tower-viewing-gallery-experience-p7513.

The planned programme of the rescheduled Unexpected Liverpool (June 6th-10th 2022) tour includes a visit to St John’s BeaconFor further details please click here.

Steps to learning

Central Library, Sheffield

Architects and designers between the wars paid less attention to health and safety than we nowadays expect, as I discovered when I missed a step at the entrance to Sheffield’s Central Library and ruptured a tendon.

I’ve examined the architecture of this splendid building from the cold pavement while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.  Descriptions of its style vary – beaux-arts, Art Deco, neo-Georgian:  from the ground it’s clearly eclectic, with fine crisp Classical and Egyptian details in Portland stone.

The Central Library, which includes the separately funded Graves Art Gallery on the top floor, was designed in 1929 by the City Architect, W G Davies, in collaboration with the City Librarian, Joseph Lamb.  It’s obvious that an extension was intended:  the glazed brick east wall would have formed an internal light-well but for the construction of the 1960s Arundel Gate dual carriageway.

The Library was intended as a keynote building in a civic square as part of Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s 1924 development plan for the city centre.  In fact, it was the only part of this scheme to be completed, like Birmingham’s incomplete Civic Centre on Broad Street, where the Hall of Memory (1923-24) and the hurriedly completed Baskerville House (1938-39) have been absorbed into later planning schemes.

There was doubt that Sheffield City Council could scrape together the funds to replace the previous lamentable library building on the same site, until the mail-order pioneer and civic benefactor John George Graves (1866-1945) offered £30,000 to lay out the top floor as an art gallery, to which he donated part of his personal art collection.

The exterior is embellished with carvings by the ubiquitous Sheffield firm Frank Tory & Sons – in this case Frank’s identical twin sons, Alfred (1881-1971) and William (1881-1968).

Within, despite years of neglect, much of the marble flooring, coffered ceilings, wood panelling and door furniture and the magnificent marble staircase rising through the building remain intact, waiting for sympathetic restoration:  https://manchesterhistory.net/architecture/1930/library.html.

The completed building was opened in July 1934 by HRH the Duchess of York, later HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.  Her husband, then known as Prince Albert, was ill at the time, and the Duchess took his place.

The Central Library came into its own during the Blitz.  It was relatively unscathed in comparison with buildings in the surrounding streets, and was quickly deployed as a refuge providing information and support for the tens of thousands of Sheffield citizens who were rendered homeless by the bombing. 

After the War Sheffield City Libraries gained a high reputation for innovation and for the breadth of the collections and the generosity of provision.

In recent decades services, staffing and opening times have been repeatedly cut, yet the Library still offers users facilities that are simply unavailable online.

It’s sad to see Mr Davies’ splendid rooms defaced by peeling plaster and faded paintwork, and I for one would approve of a recent scheme to turn the Central Library into a five-star hotel. 

The admirably-timed Library of Birmingham (2013), opened in a more favourable financial climate and so far surviving subsequent cuts, is an example of the physical information resource that a modern city needs.

And when Sheffield removes its library from the 1934 building, I hope they’ll provide safer entrance steps in the new location.

Central Library, Sheffield: entrance

A library for the twenty-first century

Library of Birmingham
Birmingham Central Library (2011)

My first memory of Birmingham, at the start of the 1960s, was of bulldozers battering buildings.

This activity was the life’s work of the City Engineer & Surveyor from 1935 to 1963, Sir Herbert Manzoni (1899-1972), who insistently proclaimed the need to get rid of the detritus of the past in favour of a brave new twentieth-century future.

I have a memory of spending an afternoon, sometime in 1971-2, in the clerestoried reading room of J H Chamberlain’s magnificent Central Library of 1882, manhandling bound volumes of The Times in search of a Victorian scandal.

The building was already doomed, being in the way of Manzoni’s Inner Ring Road, and the books were soon to be transferred from their galleried shelving, accessed by spiral staircases [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birmingham_Central_Library#/media/File:BCL_restored_after_the_fire_of_1879.jpg], into the replacement building, the Birmingham Central Library (1974) designed by the Birmingham architect John Madin (1924-2012).

John Madin was responsible for many of the significant buildings in Birmingham in the 1970s, and many of these unlovely structures have already disappeared.  I used the Central Library occasionally and loathed it.

It consisted of an unobjectionable three-storey lending library and an eight-storey reference library in the form of an upturned ziggurat.  Prince Charles dismissed it as “a place where books are incinerated, not kept”.

The design was repeatedly compromised by the City Council’s refusal to accept Madin’s specification of Portland stone or marble cladding and the glazing in of the central open atrium.  The bare concrete became grubby and the surrounding land was sold off and haphazardly developed.

There were some who valued John Madin’s claustrophobic library as a “… grand romantic gesture of the Brutalist period with subtle use of internal space, and remarkable tact in relating to [its] nineteenth-century neighbours” but the building gradually became too cramped for its purpose, as library users demanded monitors and keyboards as well as books.

Birmingham City Council was lucky to put its plans for a replacement in place in the nick of time before the economic downturn choked local-authority expenditure.

The Library of Birmingham, designed by the Dutch architect Francine Houben (b 1955) of the Mecanoo practice, occupies the site of a former car park on Centenary Square between the Birmingham Rep Theatre and the pre-war Baskerville House.  The project was launched in April 2009;  construction began at the beginning of 2010 and the Library was opened on September 3rd 2013 by Malala Yousafzai (b 1997), the world-famous activist who is a Birmingham resident.

It’s a fascinating combination of shapes and levels, rising from below ground to the rooftop, the main bulk of the building clad in gold, silver and glass behind a filigree of metal rings that commemorate the city’s Jewellery Quarter.  Its purpose, in the words of the director, Brian Gambles, is to be “no longer solely the domain of the book – it is a place with all types of content and for all types of people”:  https://www.dezeen.com/2013/08/29/library-of-birmingham-by-mecanoo.

At the top of the building, on Level 9, is the Shakespeare Memorial Room, which houses the Shakespeare Library and was transplanted first from J H Chamberlain’s 1882 library, and latterly from John Madin’s Brutalist ziggurat – a symbol of continuity, and of cultural value, linking the city’s nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century centres of learning.

John Madin’s library was demolished – to howls of protest from fans of Brutalist architecture – in 2016.

Three ships

Former Hull & East Riding Co-operative store, Three Fishes mosaic, Hull (2016)

The Hull & East Riding Co-operative Society, having lost its flagship store in the severe blitz of 1941, was determined to rebuild in the city-centre as soon as it could.

A temporary “pre-fab” store opened in 1947, and the Co-operative Wholesale Society’s in-house architect, E P Andrews, prepared ambitious plans for a prestige building at King Edward Square, the intersection of Jamieson Street and King Edward Street.

It took from 1955 to 1964 to complete – five retail floors and on the roof the Skyline Ballroom and restaurant, where Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd played beneath the dome.

The store’s signature feature, filling the corner façade, was a ‘Three Ships’ mural by Alan Boyson (1930-2018), 66 feet × 64 feet, consisting of over a million glass tesserae, completed in 1963.

It depicts three trawlers to commemorate the city’s fishing industry, their masts spelling the name “HULL”, over the motto “Res Per Industriam Prosperae” – “Success through Industry”.

There are heavy ironies here, because the fishing industry collapsed in the 1970s [https://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/news/business/fish-being-landed-hull-first-2016086] and the Co-op has lost its way in the face of a succession of revolutions in retail.

The Jamieson Street store was closed in 1969 and the front part sold to British Home Stores – a brand that itself came to a sticky end in 2016.

When BHS folded Hull City Council bought the building for redevelopment, with the expressed intention of retaining the ‘Three Ships’ mural if possible, along with two rediscovered interior murals by Alan Boyson, ‘Fish’ and ‘Sponge-Print’.

Though the building had been added to the Council’s non-statutory local list in 2007, and was placed on the Twentieth Century Society’s Buildings at Risk list in 2017, Heritage England declined to list it Grade II in 2016 because it “falls short of the high bar for listing post-war public art”.

In April 2019, Hull City Council firmly committed to retain the three Boyson murals, but six months later, reversed their decision to keep ‘Three Fishes’ because its concrete sub-structure contained asbestos and would “pose a risk to public safety” if dismantled for restoration.

Apparently, the Health & Safety Executive would require the entire building to be wrapped for demolition and the rubble taken away as contaminated waste.

Then, in a sudden turnaround at the end of November 2019, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport awarded the mural Grade II listing. 

Hull City Council was not pleased, having resolved to recreate the image photographically on the replacement structure.

Hull Heritage Action Group, which had campaigned in support of the Boyson murals since 2016, hoped that the Council “will do the right thing”.

Such U-turns often show long-term benefits.  Chesterfield would have lost its fine market place if the Peacock Inn hadn’t turned out to be a fifteenth-century structure rather than a grubby Victorian pub.

And politicians who “do the right thing” can expect to gain satisfying amounts of political capital.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 ‘Humber Heritage’ tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

English Institute of Sport Sheffield

English Institute of Sport Sheffield: A Bus Ride Round Attercliffe visit, April 7th 2019

On the popular Bus Ride Round Attercliffe trips that I run in conjunction with South Yorkshire Transport Museum, we regularly make a stop at the English Institute of Sport Sheffield, to show that the Lower Don Valley has begun an astonishing transformation since the demise of the heavy steel industry in the early 1980s.

Designed by FaulknerBrowns Architects, the Institute opened in December 2003, funded by Sport England and managed by SIV Ltd, a Health and Well Being Charity.  It’s newer than the Arena and the demolished Don Valley Stadium which were built for the 1991 World Student Games.  It’s even newer than the nearby IceSheffield, designed by the Building Design Partnership and opened in May 2003.

It has and continues to provide training facilities for an impressive array of champions, including Sheffield-born heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, boxers Anthony Joshua and Nicola Adams and the Paralympian table-tennis player Will Bailey, as well as sixty local sports clubs and seventy thousand local school children a year.

The initial cost of the facility was £28 million, and the Institute aims to balance usage at 90% local community to 10% elite athletes.

Our guide, Ryan Ruddiforth, shows Bus Ride passengers, many of whom grew up in Attercliffe after the Second World War, the facilities for boxing, wheelchair basketball and – most impressive of all – the huge 200-metre indoor running track.

I’m looking forward to offering heritage bus-ride experiences to groups from outside Sheffield in 2020, and in the ‘Sheffield’s Industrial Heritage’ tour I plan to take people first of all to Magna, to see the hot, dark, dangerous spaces where workers spent their days in the steel industry and then, for contrast, to EISS to experience the light, clean, air-conditioned spaces in which people exercise and perfect their sport skills in the twenty-first century.

The Valley has come a long way within a lifetime, and I want to present this in as dramatic a way as possible.

The ‘Sheffield’s Industrial Heritage’ bus tours are arranged on an individual basis, and Magna and EISS may not always be available because of major events taking place.  On occasions the Bus Ride may visit other equivalent buildings in the city centre or the Lower Don Valley.  For further details please click here.

For details of the next public Bus Ride Round Attercliffe, please click here.