Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Greenery in the Black Country - St Martin's Church Birmingham...

I fell ill while travelling back to England on New Year’s Eve, so when I finally arrived at destination I was feeling green and more than a little sorry for myself. I slowly trundled my over-sized suitcase out of the coach station and headed off towards the main streets of the city centre. As I braved the hill gradient of the road and wheeled my unruly luggage up the slopes, I saw the now familiar, yet ever-surreal vision that greets all visitors to Birmingham and native Brummies alike.

The Victorian edifice of St Martin’s church is surrounded by the futuristic blobitecture of the Selfridges Building... So it is that the ‘Mother Church of Birmingham’ stands next to this millennial cathedral to consumerism. The church spire and spiky forms of its Neo-Gothic architecture is virtually dwarfed by the height and sheer volume of this bulging magma of modernity - albeit already a little dated since its inauguration in 2003. Both are set in the Bullring, near the old market area that has accommodated traders and their wares since the Middle Ages.

Whilst the aluminum discs of this metallic amoeba shone out like hundreds of compound flies’ eyes, it was actually the shock of bright green algae on the masonry of the church that caught my eye on a sunlit start to the year 2020. The intense colour was so magical that I resolved to come back and investigate. Unfortunately I continued to feel bad throughout my entire stay – even greener and colder than the old stonework – and so the final photos were rather flat and I didn’t even manage to take shots of the obvious views, even less explore! There is no picture of the Selfridges Building!

The history of St Martin’s reflects that of the city itself; a continual adaptation to the social, cultural and commercial sea changes brought about and bolstered by developments in technology, communication and consumerism. The face and form of Birmingham’s city centre have been the focus of several sizeable transformations since the Industrial Revolution, but above all and most radically, in the aftermath of the Second World War and now again from the early 2000s.

Ambitious new visions for the second city of England have resulted in a series of extensive urban reconstruction projects that have radically altered the landscape and even the role of Brum itself, just as canals did with the industrialisation of the 18th century and the expanding train networks later on. Indeed, the waterways and railways that were carved into and around the city acted as veins and arteries, circulating goods and supplies to the vital organs of the Black Country. Birmingham was the pulsing heart of the Industrial Revolution, and the network of canals was both the cause and consequence of its growth. Fast-forward some 300 years, to the 1960s, and pro-car urban planning likewise sought to give a dynamic boost to a city that was finally ready to rise from the shadows of post-war restrictions. This resulted in the ‘concrete collar’ of thoroughways that ploughed through Birmingham’s centre - the Inner Ring Road – leading the way to an exciting new future…

At its heart was the revamped Bull Ring market area which emerged as the Bull Ring Shopping Centre – a shining example of commercial mall-inspired modernism - clad in the boxy, grey concrete attire of Brutalist architecture. Other such buildings appeared from the late 50s onwards, all dashing in their inspired vision, but dismal to behold - for me, at least. Whilst campaigners have called for their conservation - the Brutiful Birmingham Action Group being one – many of these monoliths have been demolished to make room for the new ‘new’. With bright hope for yet another brave, brand-new world, these vertical visions of 60’s dynamism are now being floored in their turn, just like the sprawling patchworks of dirty Victorian back-to-backs that had been demolished to make way for them.

The reality of living and working in and around these high-rise horizons soon hit as hard and cold as the bold, unforgiving materials they were constructed from. Spaghetti junctions and tower blocks rising high above ground, pedestrian subways below, and interminable roads between were no longer futuristic emblems of promise but pointed to a rat-race destiny for those caught in this concrete maze. Discontent that was voiced over post-war redevelopment has led to an ongoing overhaul of the centre of Birmingham that continues to this very day, but by its very nature, this can only be problematic. What do you preserve ? What should go ? According to Sir Herbert Manzoni, City Engineer and Surveyor from 1935 to 1963, "there is little of real worth in our architecture" and with that withering assessment, vast plots of land were wiped clean of their architectural past, to be built over with imposing concrete constructions of limited life span, yet life-long notoreity. It has even been remarked that at least the Luftwaffe ‘merely’ left rubble behind in their trail of devastation….

Urban renewal is, of course, nothing new. Each successive major civic project is largely built on, or alongside, the site of its predecessors. One man’s meat is indeed another man’s poison. Augustus Pugin – architect pionnier of the Gothic Revival movement referred to the city  as "that most detestable of detestable places - Birmingham, where Greek buildings and smoking chimneys, Radicals and Dissenters are blended together". The Arts and Crafts Movement, born of the Birmingham Set (including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones) would reject the art and architecture of heavily-industrialized Victorian England and finally give way to Edwardian and inter-war styles, ultimately leading to Modernism.

Nothing remains constant, and nor should it, but what we consider to have become obsolete by the criteria of our time, should surely not be obliterated and in so doing annihilating the past. Many rows of grand red-brick Victorian buildings have long been replaced by other forms of otherness and this process is still very much ‘work in progress’. More recently, the concrete ziggurat of Birmingham Central Library was replaced by another version of newness for our multi-tasking, multimedia era. Other parts of the city are due to be rejuvenated ; the expanse of the Custard Factory Complex, just beyond Digbeth Coach Station is now being measured up. Of the original 70s Bull Ring area, the iconic cyclindrical Rotunda has survived although its towering sci-fi office space now provides high-rise accommodation. The Bull Ring Shopping Centre, freed of the Inner Ring road, has morphed itself into the blob-like Bullring, linked to the Grand Central around New Street Station and is hub to serious Shopping (capital S). I can't help but wonder how long it will stand there, in its current state and style. My remaining blurred memories of the late 60’s-to-70’s city centre are no longer valid – I recognise very little - and these simply go to underline the notion that "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

The church of St Martin has stood its ground throughout all of this extensive reconstruction activity, and has been witness to the waves of change that have visited its urban surroundings. Although itself victim to the blitz bombing in the war years, its spirit and architectural structure has remained largely intact so that it is still a landmark in a city that has, in parts, changed beyond recognition. And perhaps no part of the city has changed as much as the Bull Ring market area.

Until the 17th century, St. Martin’s was the only church in Birmingham. This was a Mediaval village centred on the retail and wholesale markets of the Bull Ring, a name referring to the blood sport of bull-baiting. Towards the end of the 13th century, a red sandstone church was founded by the de Bermingham family, thus replacing an earlier edifice which had been a simple place of worship, thought to date back to Saxon times. Burials took place in St Martin’s up until the construction of St Philip’s church in the early 18th century, in order to meet the spiritual needs of the congregation and their dead. This Baroque edifice stood outside the historic centre of Birmingham, although today we naturally assume this to be the oldest quarter since there appear to be fewer modern buildings in the vicinity - for the moment at least. St Philip’s was built of brick faced with stone, enabling it to resist over time, unlike St Martin’s whose sandstone weathered so poorly that by the end of the 17th century ‘serious deterioration’ required drastic measures to be taken to preserve the church. In an attempt to save the edifice, it was entirely flanked in a thick protective red-brick casing. This may have ‘done the trick’, but resulted in an aesthetically displeasing whole -  of Neo-Classical design. Of the original Medieval church, only the spire was visible for the next 200 years.

By the 19th century, criticism of this "hideous pile of brick and whitewash" was rife and the poor taste of interfering churchwardens was blamed. Not only was the original form obscured - "buried in its ugly tomb, literally bricked up" - but other features had also been added. It was later remarked that the interior surpassed the exterior in "unsightliness". Indeed, over the course of the 18th century tall round-headed windows with cast-iron frames were added – later pointed out as being more appropriate to factory buildings; certain aisles had been extended; a vestry constructed; low, flat Georgian ceilings set in place and medieval wall paintings whitewashed and plastered over. Furthermore, the erosion of the masonry had continued regardless of the alterations and represented a serious threat to the building. All in all, the church was seen to be a disgrace to the status of Birmingham.

Despite appeals, lack of funds meant that only the tower and spire could be restored. Finally, however, money started to be raised from the 1870s in order to carry out a complete rebuilding of St Martin’s. The resulting Grade II listed church, designed by Alfred Chatwin, is an example of gothic Victorian architecture. The whole church, with the exception of the recently restored tower and spire, was taken down and rebuilt in an accurate 14th century style, enabling the architect to study all remaining original forms and features. Indeed, in order to retain the aspect and spirit of the former Gothic edifice, the new choir stalls were carved from its surviving medieval roof timbers. Trained under Charles Barry, Chatwin had worked on the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament alongside both him and Pugin. It is therefore highly likely that the open-timber roof was inspired by the great ‘hammer-beam’ roof of Westminster Hall. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, there had been a boom in the population and thus a considerable growth in the number of  parishes. Birmingham officially became a city in 1889, and St Philip’s church assumed the status of cathedral at the turn of the century. St Martin’s continued to fulfil its role, administering to its parishoners and opening its doors to those passing through.

Although Birmingham was a prime target for enemy offensives in the Great War due to the importance of its munitions works, Zeppelin attacks caused no damage to the city thanks to extensive black-out measures and anti air-craft surveillance. The same cannot be said of the Second World War, when Birmingham bore the brunt of Luftwaffe attacks. After London and Merseyside, Brum received a greater tonnage of high explosives than any other region. In the air-raids that wreaked havoc on the city centre, the Bull Ring received many direct hits and St Martin’s was not spared the hostilities. The church did survive the attack of April 1941, even though almost all of the Victorian stained glass was destroyed, with the exception of one work of Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward Burne-Jones. His transept window had been removed and stored safely just prior to the bombing.

Fortunately, just as many other churches and spiritual centres, St Martins’ is still anchored in city life today, adapting itself to its environment. There was a photography exhibition on show when I visited, but apparently it is even used as a venue for music concerts too! It has always assumed several roles as an active pivot and focal point in the heart of the Bull Ring ; working for and with the congregation, the community, culture and even commerce via social enterprise. I am not at all religious myself, but I love to see the historic and the ‘meaningful’ (for the lack of a better term) alive in the present, able to be observed in context and with hindsight; unapologetic at a time when everything has to be justified, labelled, sterilized and reduced to bite-size, safe doses for convenience.

Living in a connected, supposedly globalised society, we want everything to be slick, rapidly and easily accessible, geared to the individual yet attached to a network when it suits our personal needs and desires. Everything appears to be a commodity, to be swiped, consumed, shared and liked, or clicked away without a trace. History seems to be an anti-dote to all of that. The frenzy of acquiring stuff, this cult of consumption of things and now Experiences (with a capital E) have taken on such huge proportions that they have become some kind of juggernaut that will crush and devore anything that stands in their path. This seems to be a road to ruin, and one on which we will lose ourselves. How can you understand life and find meaning in a land without lasting traces, a horizon devoid of visible historic landmarks?

We do not even notice what is happening to our urban landscapes anymore. Much of the heritage of a city – mainly, but not exclusively architecture – is being deleted without a backward glance. We often no longer recall what was there in the recent past and worse still perhaps, we do not even care. By the time we realise the fate of a building or any plot of land, the planning permission has already been granted, and we are powerless to act, should we wish to do so. Nothing seems secure anymore and that makes me all the more grateful for edifices like St Martin’s, when few historic buildings can be assured a future. As lifestyles evolve, aspirations and expectations in life are modified in line with changing patterns and means of consumption. Our previously-treasured high streets are undergoing a shift that guarantees nothing but assured incertitude. This could be just as positive as negative in outcome, but we need some kind of constancy in these quick-sand times. The impressive historic buildings that are still standing in Birmingham’s city centre are, generally speaking, no longer home to the old, powerful institutions.

Beautiful, high-set porticos, majestic doorways, vaulted ceilings, vast Georgian rooms with classical fittings, late Victorian brick and terracotta façades, coloured faïence brickwork now all serve as backcloths to lounge 'living and chilling' spaces; wine bars, eateries, cafés and the like. The banks, insurance companies, lofty firms and prestigious retail stores seem to have moved out – online, overseas or out of town. A former children’s hospital has even become a casino – well, why not ? Better that than left as empty, boarded up and/or derelict buildings. However, I fear that once revenues decline, these short-term occupants –albeit all instantly-recognizable big brands - will follow suit. This will leave multiple premises – the city’s heritage - in a poor state of repair, having been modified out of recognition to meet fleeting modern requirements. These edifices risk falling easy prey to property developers with their wrecking ball or sneaky current practice of gutting historic buildings to preserve a veneer-thin frontage ('Facadism') as a nod to the past. This would appear to be more a two-fingered salute to our history... and our very selves.

The Bull Ring and parish church of St Martin, Birmingham, 1880s, unknown photographer

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