Urban Renewal – Vision and Reality: The Birmingham Civic Centre Scheme 1926-1965

The following drawings form part of a large deposit of rolled plans of public buildings and urban planning schemes. They were transferred to our archives from the Birmingham City Council Urban Design Department in 2008.

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Image 1: View of equestrian statue & adjacent hall of marriages & same from Civic Court. Aerial view toward cathedral overlooking Civic Court City Hall & Museum group relating to existing plan for Civic Centre layout, Broad Street (Ref: BCC Additional Accession 2008/087 Tube roll 1)

This particular sheet shows amended versions of the layout of grounds and buildings of the proposed new Civic Centre at Centenary Square. The plans were created by a number of individuals, this one bearing the signature of Herbert Manzoni, City Engineer and Surveyor. He was to play a leading role in planning the redevelopment of Birmingham after 1945 following the devastation unleashed on the city during the Blitz. The drawings capture perfectly the utopian dreams and aspirations of the architects and city planners charged not simply with reconstruction but also rethinking how urban development should be planned and how urban spaces should be utilised, creating new cities from the ruins of the old.

The Civic Centre scheme had been in the pipeline since 1926, when the Council organised a competition to obtain the best plans. The competition received an international response from architects and planners, and several grand schemes were proposed, which were rejected by the General Purposes Committee on the grounds of being too ambitious for an English provincial city. The City Engineer was authorised to prepare a more modest scheme in partnership with James Swan, another competitor, and S.N. Cooke, who had designed the Hall of Memory.

Various new proposals and modifications were submitted to and discussed by the Council throughout the inter-war and post-war periods by architects and planners including Manzoni, John Madin, William Haywood, and Alwyn Sheppard-Fiddler, later City Architect for Birmingham. Progress of the scheme was interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1939, though it was fully intended to continue with the project when hostilities ended, assuming Britain pulled through.

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Image 2: Aerial view of proposed traffic gyratory system & fly-over one way traffic bridge (Ref: BCC Additional Accession 2008/087 Tube roll 1)

In partnership with various Council committee and departmental officials, the architect William Haywood was requested to prepare a new scheme. He had already designed the Baskerville House complex of municipal offices, which opened in 1940 (visible on Image 2, top left, just to the north of the Hall of Memory). This comprised the first phase of a much larger Civic Centre area. A formal report was prepared by the General Purposes Committee to Council on 8 February 1944. Plans, together with a large scale model, were also submitted.

The report proposed a new Civic Centre Gardens, including a huge central square laid out as a parade ground, envisaged to accommodate large public meetings and civic events, built over an underground car park that could house 1200 cars. Additional new civic buildings were originally to be built in a large block on the north west corner of the gardens divided into three parts, comprising a 3000 capacity City Hall, two smaller halls (500-700 capacity), with the remaining sections to be used as a new central library, museum and art gallery. A Planetarium and Hall of Memory was also intended to be built by the Hall of Memory, including a circular lecture hall (600-700 capacity), and covered by a great dome. Externally, the Planetarium would be enclosed by a colonnade, upon which would be recorded, in accordance with more patriarchal attitudes still prevalent at the time, the names of the ‘great men’ of the city, and its history. The committee also proposed that the scheme would include a decorative column at the centre of the gardens intended to symbolise the traditional energy and dynamism of the city. Some of the proposed buildings are shown in Image 1, above, and Image 3, below, namely the Hall of Marriages, City Hall and Museum buildings.

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Image 3: General aerial perspective of complete proposed scheme with Cathedral layout in foreground. Read in conjunction with 1/2500 plan (Ref: BCC Additional Accession 2008/087 Tube roll 1)

The plan sheet depicted is slightly mutilated at the bottom right hand corner, so it is unclear as to the exact date in which it was drawn up. It was drawn by Manzoni and appears somewhat different to the proposals put together in the report, and was probably sketched out between 1944 and 1946. It may have been one of many ‘test’ artist impressions reflecting the utopian ideals of city planners toying with ever more grandiose ideas, modifying existing plans and giving form  to their thought processes as they sketched out their proposals for rebuilding the city.

The amended proposal on Manzoni’s plan included what appears to be a new cathedral, located to the west of the Civic Centre, just south of Broad Street (see Image 3, right). This new building was not envisioned when the 1944 proposal was agreed. Towering over the other nearby buildings, the church structure seems particularly monolithic and strikingly out-of-place beside the other nearby civic and commercial buildings shown in the view. Likewise, Image 4, below, shows additional buildings not mentioned in the 1944 report, including a Broadcasting Station and a new building for the Midland Institute. More detail regarding the development of the various permutations of the Civic Centre scheme may appear in relevant committee minutes, unfortunately I did not have time to investigate these further.

The Civic Centre Scheme was formally approved by the Council in 1945, but no real estimates had been made as to final costs. By 1948 plans for the Civic Column had stalled, and was soon quietly dropped. The only part of the proposal, Baskerville House notwithstanding, that came to fruition was the Boulton & Watt Memorial, completed in 1956 and standing to this day on Broad Street near the old Municipal Bank building offices. Various modified proposals continued to be submitted and discussed throughout the 1950s and 1960s. As to why the Civic Centre Scheme ran out of steam, various reasons have been suggested. One was that the rather monolithic nature of the pre-war proposals seemed outdated by the 1950s. Another was that the Council lacked the willpower or indeed the means in the first instance to acquire the whole site in a way that the development could have been planned en masse. This forced the local authority to purchase sites and buildings for new municipal  offices piecemeal in more scattered locations across the city.

Indecisiveness may have been a contributing factor explaining why the project stalled by 1965, but scarcity of money and high costs of labour and materials after the war were probably critical in slowing momentum. Priority was given to new infrastructural developments such as the Inner Ring Road Scheme, as befitting Manzoni’s vision of Birmingham as the ‘City of the Car’. The pressing need to rebuild a city devastated by wartime bombing, demolish insanitary and damaged housing and build new housing estates, particularly in the five Redevelopment Zones allocated in Birmingham’s central areas, would likewise take immediate precedence in terms of the direction of municipal energy and resources. By the early 1960s the government had introduced deflationary measures including restrictions on capital expenditure by local authorities, forcing the Council to introduce stringent economy measures.

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Image 4: View of Civic Centre, proposed Broadcasting Station & rebuilt Midland Institute from top of Suffolk Street (Ref: BCC Additional Accession 2008/087 Tube roll 1)

On the other hand, many of the elements of the various Civic Centre Scheme proposals were eventually realised after the original Centenary Square proposals were jettisoned. The great Exhibition Hall idea eventually became reality in Birmingham’s outer suburbs with the opening of the National Exhibition Centre, which opened in February 1976. Flexible planning initiatives and the progress of the Inner Ring Road scheme stimulated developments from around 1964 leading to the construction of a new School of Music, Birmingham Athletic Institute and Drama Centre, along with the new Central Library closer to Chamberlain Square (itself about to be demolished), along with a new Repertory Theatre situated to the west of the square, both of which opened in 1974.

Centenary Square, like much of the rest of the city centre, remains in a state of flux. The new Library of Birmingham and the refurbished Repertory Theatre opened in 2013. The old Central Library and Paradise Forum and Circus complex is scheduled for demolition to make way for the new Paradise development. Such changes affecting the urban topography of the city evident today can be compared to the rich documentary and visual evidence in our archives of previous redevelopment and urban planning schemes, of which the above plan roll forms just a small part. The evidence attests to Birmingham’s historic dynamism, and the challenges and opportunities this presented for the planners and architects charged with responding, sometimes controversially, to this constantly morphing urban environment.

Some further reading:

For general historical information relating to the progress of the Civic Centre, the following books can be found on the Birmingham Collection shelves in the Heritage Research Area, Floor 4, Library of Birmingham:

1. BCOL 31 HIS J.T. Jones, History of the Corporation of Birmingham, Vol. 5, Part 2, 1915-1935 (Birmingham: General Purposes Committee, 1940), pp. 570-4

2. BCOL 31 HIS J.T. Jones, History of the Corporation of Birmingham, Vol. 6, Part 2, 1935-1950 (Birmingham: General Purposes Committee, 1957), pp. 571-9

3. BCOL 70.1 SUT Anthony Sutcliffe and Roger Smith, History of Birmingham volume III: Birmingham 1939-1970 (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 448-65

Lists of minute books and other administrative records of the General Purposes Committee and Civic Centre Sub-Committee can be found on our on-line archives catalogue, CalmView. Please follow links to the Archives and Heritage Catalogue on the Library of Birmingham website http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com, adding the search term BCC/1/AG or BCC/1/AG/24 in the RefNo field.

Researchers wishing to investigate the above building plan, minute books or any other archival material relating to the Civic Centre in more detail would need to make an appointment to view them in the Wolfson Centre, our archives search room. Please email archives.appointments@birmingham.gov.uk giving the date(s) you would like to look at and the reference numbers of the item(s) you wish to look at.

Further details about the Archives, Heritage and Photography Service at the Library of Birmingham, including collections, opening hours, resource guides and registering reader’s ticket scheme can be found here.

Michael Hunkin, Archivist (Archives, Heritage and Photography, Library of Birmingham)

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One response to “Urban Renewal – Vision and Reality: The Birmingham Civic Centre Scheme 1926-1965

  1. Pingback: Birmingham’s ‘temples of relief’ | The Iron Room

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