Sunday, June 24, 2018

Towering Follies...

Perrot's Folly
During a recent visit to Birmingham, I found myself back in Edgbaston and tried to take the opportunity to explore some roots. Originally, this district was home to more affluent Brummies, attracted to the leafy suburban area just beyond the city centre. A stroll past some of the substantial houses still intact today, surrounded by majestic trees, gives an impression of a certain past sophistication. A number of these are now divided up into multiple flat conversions, providing accommodation for an ever-growing population and sizeable rent revenue for savvy landlords, just as they are across the country.

Other streets are of a far more modest aspect, composed of rows and rows of small, identical red-brick buildings, stretching out like patchwork. These byelaw terraced houses were once home to workers and their families, but now are more likely to offer short-term accommodation to a large student population.

My grandmother lived in a house not unlike these, albeit in another part of the city, and I wonder what has become it now. It is strange seeing the schools and streets that my grandparents and parents once knew as the backdrop to their daily lives, and quite amazing that so much of these are still standing and recognisable! The same cannot be said for large parts of a city which seems to have undergone so many radical changes over the post-war decades.

Perrot's Folly
Whatever the status of the house, past or present, any garden space seems to be given over to the parking of cars or the storage of the numerous disposal bins, as needs must. Little by little, the demise of tended or even treasured pockets of garden and greenery takes its toll, and seems to hint at the gradual decline of a cohesive community that cares about its surroundings, and its life therein. Rubbish litters the pavements like crazy punctuation and the high-powered cars, with blaring music and tinted windows skulk along the roads, day and night, provide a menacing pounding tempo. It does not seem to take much for an area to get run down, but it seems sad that this seems somehow inevitable these days.

Edgbaston Reservoir
We pondered over this because poverty, or diminished means cannot fully account for this downward shift and this change has gained momento over the past few years. Fortunately, the rather dismal aspects of this urban landscape are offset by the beautiful expanse of water and cultivated wilderness in the form of Edgbaston Reservoir, built in 1827, and are also at odds with the friendly disposition of the locals in general.

It was in this part of Birmingham that JRR Tolkien grew up, and from his bedroom window he would have been able to see one of the two imposing towers that marked his childhood memories and fired his creative imagination; Perrot's Folly. This is a 30-meter, seven-floor hunting lodge, built  in 1758, with a sweeping view over what was once a landed estate. Since it did actually have a practical role, this is not a folly in the strictest sense of the term  ie; a 'non-functional building used for aesthetic enhancement.

This Gothic brick tower, with its looming lighthouse shape, was therefore never a mere eyecatcher. Since the emergence of the trilogy of the Lord of the Rings films, Perrot's Folly has drawn in avid Hobbit fans on the Tolkien Trail, like moths to a candle, just as the second tower.

Edgbaston Waterworks
This ornate tower is part of the Edgbaston Waterworks and access remains difficult as it is situated behind a security fence.

A century ago, creeping industrialisation caused Tolkien to lament the loss of the rural expanses that had been part of his childhood years "in the Shire... in a pre-mechanical age".  Like H.G Wells, the imminent threat of a brutal, modern world and the experience of the trenches in the Great War modelled Tolkien's writings. Both men warned of civilisation's downfall through ignorance and the desire for power at a time when science and technology had the potential to lead Man into a No Man's Land.

I cannot help wondering what Tolkien would make of the latest advances in stage two of the Big City Plan; the 'City Centre Masterplan'.

One certainty is that Tolkien would surely have had great difficulty finding many familiar landmarks around vast swathes of the city! Nevertheless, the desire to capitalize on a striking association of ancient and 'sci-fi modern'  architecture has meant that some of the old vestiges have remained. This creates the most astonishing views!

St Martin's church at the Bull Ring
I kept wondering what these old, odd remnants of a past life would say to us if they were granted the power of speech... Not least of all, St Martin's church in the Bull Ring shopping centre, which now has the futuristic Selfridges bulding as an outrageous bedfellow.

Another point of which I am certain; most of these supposedly state-of-the-art, 21st century shiny creations will literally be little more than a flash in the pan in the fabric of the city.

Indeed, I suspect these will only last a few decades and may never even garner as much sentiment as the Brutalist architecure that lead to Birmingham's 'concrete jungle' reputation when the Spaghetti Junction cut up the city.

What appeared to be so avant-garde in the wave of redevelopment in the 60s now looks old, grey and Stalinist.

Furthermore, many of these buildings have been abandonned, and yet I remember visiting Birmingham as a child and thinking these were the height of sophistication!

St Martin's Church with the Rotunda.
I suppose childhood memories have attached themselves to my vision of these same buildings, resulting in a misplaced fondness, if it could be called that.

I spent a great deal of time wandering around the city centre, looking up at the sights and was not disappointed. However, what bothers me is that the old buildings will ultimately decline, to be replaced by this massively anonymous architecture that has little real depth, character or longevity, and nothing that attaches it to one specific city or country. What will differentiate Birmingham city centre from any other in the long term? Will it just be inhabited by these towering follies?

Around the old town hall and the public library, construction is 'intense', to say the least. With fences, scaffolding and boarded-up expanses, movement is hampered and views are blocked so that navigation is hard work!

Trying to get around was rather frustrating, but each street offered something unusual.

Some of the old buildings are literally dwarfed by these architectural descendants...

The stonework on the façades of the Victorian architecture here was incredible, but this would no longer be desirable or viable. Who ever looks up these days?

Did the average Victorian spend an incredible amount of time gazing far above eye-level, or were these buildings decorated 'just in case'?

In true Gollum fashion, most people today are busy clutching onto their precious electronic devices, eyes rivetted to screens, too engrossed to lift their heads up and away from this cunning gadgetry that has enslaved us.
Sculptures shrouded in netting...
Along the canal, the mood was peaceful and timeless and the risk of falling into the waterway probably encouraged people to take in and enjoy their surroundings!

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