I bet most people who live in central Birmingham rarely (if ever) look at buildings above street level. We get conditioned to look for shops, cafés, restaurants and bars as we walk along Birmingham city centre streets because as non-visitors we have gone there because of these street level facilities.
So many of the buildings constructed in the 19th century and before have been converted to commercial purposes due to, I suppose, their size and layout being unsuitable for the increase in use created by the vast increase in population. At the beginning of the 19th century it was around 74,000; by the end of the century it had risen to 630,000 becoming the second largest population conurbation in Britain.
Many buildings disappeared in the 20th century due to wars and also the desire of developers to create modern looking buildings aided and abetted by town planners. Simple concrete constructions were de rigeur – thought to be refreshing with little of the ornate decoration that was demanded by Victorian Britain. The 1960’s were a bad era for heritage buildings. They were demolished with little regard to the fact that similar ones with similar ornate hand-crafted stonework could never be built again.
Luckily for us certain buildings, usually public ones – hospitals, colleges, libraries – were not demolished to make room for the concrete monsters. They were protected by the introduction of Listed Buildings in the The Town and Country Planning Act 1947, being of special historical or architectural importance.
Listed building status demands that the owner gets “listed building consent” for any work or alteration and must provide interested parties with an opportunity to comment or object eg the Victorian Society and the City Council’s Conservation and Heritage Panel. It ensures that the special historic and architectural interest of the building is taken into account in any planning decisions.
This however, does not altogether stop a determined developer demolishing a building nor does it prevent change of use nor alteration. Many listed buildings have been built on, both extending the frontal façade or the roof behind the original façade.
So, in viewing the heritage buildings that remain one may need to focus on the original frontal façade which in any case was intended as the side to make a statement about the building. One must not look too closely to either side or look past the top of the façade especially from a high viewpoint. Having said that one can appreciate the architecture and detailing in these ancient buildings once one limits one’s view and temptation to criticise.
One area that has a number of such buildings is the Colmore Business District, bordered by the Council House and Birmingham Museum (west), Colmore row (south), Snowhill station (east) and Great Charles Queensway (north). Today this area of around 200 by 400 metres is favoured for branches of businesses such as solicitors, accountants and banks. There are also a number of completely new large, tall glass panelled buildings For the purpose of viewing historic buildings these must be ignored as they dilute the historic atmosphere of the area.
Article by Geoff Caine
Click here to open a Google map of the area in a separate page.
Here is my gallery of photos taken recently. I thoroughly recommend a walk around the area on a nice day.