Sadly, our city has lost some of its Brutalist Brummie buildings. With its simple, block-like forms and use of raw concrete, Brutalism is the Marmite of architectural styles. We are definitely on the ‘love Brutalism’ side and we celebrate what’s left.
If you are with us on Brutalism, here are five of the buildings that you should see:
1) Rotunda (150 New Street, Birmingham B2 4PA)
We have to talk about Birmingham’s Brutalist Rotunda building first as our Birmingham apartment hotel is at the top of it. We never tire of this unique, cylindrical building with its concrete core and flooring. Just as Le Corbusier designed his Unité d’habitation in Marseilles to combine long-term residents with overnight visitors, you can book into this Brutalist residential skyscraper for just the night with Staying Cool.
The 1960s building – originally designed by James A.Roberts Associates as office space – was threatened with demolition in the 1980s. However, the building was saved thanks to a public campaign. It achieved Grade II listed status in 2000 and was redeveloped from office space to residential apartments by Urban Splash and Glenn Howells Architects. They worked on this with Jim Roberts, the original architect. Birmingham’s Rotunda reopened in 2008. We have 35 serviced apartments on the top floors ranging from studios to 5* penthouse apartments.
Jim Roberts died in 2019 at the age of 97 and Glenn Howells wrote his obituary for the Architects’ Journal.
2) New Street Signal Box (Navigation Street, Birmingham B5 4AD)
This Brutalist power signal box was part of the 1960s rebuild of Birmingham’s 1850s New Street Station. The corrugated concrete design of the signal box has really stood the test the time.
It was designed by Bicknell & Hamilton and W.R. Healey and Grade II listed in 1995. Architect Paul Hamilton (born Paul Herschan) fled Nazi Germany as a boy on the Kindertransport. Hamilton later fought for Britain in the Intelligence section of the Parachute Regiment. A fascinating man.
3) Ringway Centre (Smallbrook Queensway, Birmingham B1 1BA)
The Ringway Centre or SBQ was designed by the Rotunda’s architect, James Roberts. The aim was to replace buildings that had largely been destroyed during WWII in air raids. In 2016, it was refused listed status by Historic England and is now undergoing partial demolition and recladding. This hasn’t been welcomed by admirers of the building. The architect Joe Holyoke described the SBQ as, “..a grand and elegant urban gesture.” Holyoke continued, “Its curvature on plan and sweeping horizontal lines, its rhythm of vertical fins, together with its characteristic projecting concrete uplighters, make it still the most impressive piece of modern streetscape in the city, even 54 years after its completion.”
You can see the sweep of SBQ on the right in the video below (1965).
4) Quayside Tower (Broad Street, Birmingham B1 2HF)
Like Rotunda, Quayside Tower is a refurbished Brutalist design in Brum. It was built in 1965 to a design by John Madin. Madin was one of Birmingham’s major architects in the post-war period. He designed the Birmingham Post and Mail, the Chamber of Commerce, the Central Library and BBC Pebble Mill.
Quayside Tower was refurbished in 2003 and a new roof feature was part of this, changing the top of the structure. However, 20 abstract concrete reliefs on the building’s podium by artist William Mitchell remain untouched.
5) Muirhead Tower (University of Birmingham, Edgbaston B15 2TN)
Birmingham University’s Muirhead Tower was built in 1971 to a design by Sir Philip Dawson, a founding partner of the mighty Arup. Birmingham University spent £42m between 2007-2009 on refurbishing this striking campus building.
Lost Brutalist buildings in Birmingham
Birmingham Central Library
Birmingham’s Central Library was demolished in 2013 to make way for a major development between Birmingham’s two major pedestrianised squares. English Heritage applied for listed status for Birmingham Central Library twice, but each bid failed.
Opened in 1974, the library was designed by John Madin. The library’s inverted ziggurat form made it one of Birmingham’s most distinctive buildings, but the building was originally designed to be clad in white marble.
The building’s replacement – Birmingham Library – is in a different location in Centenary Square. It was designed by Dutch firm Mecanoo and very well received. Many of the Mecaanoo team stayed with us at Rotunda during the project.
You can see some of the Central Library’s ziggurat form in some of the images we have on the walls in our Birmingham serviced apartments at Rotunda. The photograph below was taken in 2008.
The Post and Mail
The Post and Mail by John Madin used a rich array of materials. It was clad in aluminium and the interior made use of granite and marble. The Post and Mail had listed status turned down twice. The staff of the Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail moved out to Fort Dunlop in 2008 and this Brutalist building made way for an underground car park and office blocks.
The NatWest Tower was designed by John Madin in the 1970s. At 23 storeys, it was the tallest structure in the Colmore Row Conservation Area, but it never achieved full occupancy. The NatWest Tower was down by 2017. 103 Colmore Row, which will be Birmingham’s tallest office building, is now under construction.
Architectural critic Andy Foster described the building as being “the most important Brutalist commercial building in the city, disastrous in context but with its own tremendous integrity.” Only the NatWest Tower’s distinctive, cast-aluminium banking hall doors will be incorporated into the new building.
Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre was truly cutting edge as it was the first indoor shopping centre in the UK. That seems hard to believe now as shopping centres have become part of the fabric of our cities. The Bullring’s lead architect was Jim Roberts.
In 2000, the original Bullring finally met its Waterloo. The new Bullring opened in 2003 and it includes the futuristic Selfridges Birmingham, which has a curved form clad in 15,000 aluminium disks.
Birmingham Brutalism In Art
Birmingham is a really creative city. We’re lucky to have some companies who really celebrate Birmingham’s architecture.
Space Play are full-on Brutalist obsessives. They produce prints, concrete casts and Top Trump sets of Birmingham’s Brutalist buildings. They’ve expanded to cover London and the rest of the UK too.
Made on the canal
Thomas Parry (aka Made On The Canal) is an architectural illustrator based in Birmingham. Thomas doesn’t exclusively capture Brutalist buildings in Birmingham, but you can buy wonderful prints of the NatWest Tower, Muirhead Tower and New Street Station Box from him.
Lastly, we bring you Brumhaus. They make Modernist inspired art created in Birmingham and often featuring our Rotunda HQ.
Stay at the Brutalist icon, Rotunda, to explore more Brutalism in Birmingham
We’d love to have you come and stay with us at the top of Rotunda. The interiors of our serviced apartments celebrate the 1960s heritage of the building in a cool way. We are right in the centre of Birmingham, which makes it easy to explore this hugely-creative city. Book a Roadster penthouse, two-bed Maxi, one-bed Clubman or Mini Studio here online.
Receive a complimentary bottle of wine on arrival using the booking code BRUTAL20.