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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Birmingham Part 3

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas SEPTEMBER. 30, 2021

I start part three with this photo out of sequence because I think it was probably the best one of the day. I only think that, having looked at it now, as it was an instant decision to turn, look, snap, and move on. Two years ago I could have mistaken this scene for a contemporary art installation. I could have written a piece of gobbledegook to go on a sign in front explaining all the hidden meanings and social significance, justifying the huge cost of constructing the artwork and the massive public grant for creating it. I might have won the Turner Prize for it's importance as social comment.

Gobbledegook - language that is meaningless or is made unintelligible by excessive use of technical terms.

Gobbledegook today mainly excels in art galleries like the Ikon Gallery in my last post, part two.

In reality this scene is just four people having lunch. The rest is what you bring to the party. It's a moment in time. Already part of history. I hope none of the individuals mind being stars in my Blogosphere, as I think they are just perfect.

Back to the route of my walk and part two left us in Gas Street Basin, where two canals meet. Under the footbridge is the lock that joined the two canals. This lock was introduced solely to prevent water from being lost from one canal system to the other. The water levels here are equal.

The lock was a later addition as originally there was a bar across the basin that prevented the passage of boats as well as water. All cargo had to be manually lifted across the bar from one boat to another.

In the distance is the iconic Cube, part of the Mailbox development. Previously the location of a railway goods yard with canal wharves off the Worcester and Birmingham Canal leading to Gas Street Basin, the site was the location of the Royal Mail's main sorting office building for Birmingham (hence its current name).

Currently my header photo on Photoblog is a shot of two very monochrome buildings (if you are reading this at a later date it may have changed). Below you might recognise the one on the right, but the one on the left is new. This is all part of the Arena development that on my last visit two years ago was under construction. This building on the left was just a vacant lot back then. On the right is a hotel that had just opened two years ago.

The street furniture in this area harks back to an earlier time and there are still one or two remnants of buildings that survived both the war, during which Birmingham was heavily bombed, and also later official vandalism. The result is incongruous sights like this below, where a reproduction gas lamp with ladder rest for the gas lighter, is framed by the gold cupola of the new library which houses the Victorian wood panelled Shakespeare room physically moved from it's original home and re-installed here. (It's second move, as the Victorian library was replaced by a concrete model in 1974 which has also since been demolished.)

This is the Birmingham Rep, below.

Birmingham Repertory Theatre, commonly called Birmingham Rep or just The Rep, is a producing theatre based on Centenary Square in Birmingham, England. It is the longest-established of Britain's building-based theatre companies.

Today The Rep produces a wide range of drama in its three auditoria – The House with 825 seats, The Studio with 300 seats and The Door with 140 seats.

In 1971 the company moved from Station Street to a new 901-seat theatre designed by Graham Winteringham and Keith Williams Architects on Broad Street, in the area that would later be developed as Centenary Square. The theatre was opened by Princess Margaret and the first production to be shown in the theatre was an adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice called First Impressions which starred Patricia Routledge. The building itself won a Royal Institute of British Architects award in 1972.

I am amazed, first, that it is fifty years old and second that Birmingham City Council hasn't knocked it down yet.

This is the wonderful and hugely successful Symphony Hall below, or at least it was.

Symphony Hall is a 2,262 seat concert venue in Birmingham, England. It was officially opened by the Queen on 12 June 1991. Symphony Hall was designed by Percy Thomas Partnership and Renton Howard Wood Levin. In 2016 the Concert Hall Acoustics expert Leo Beranek ranked Symphony Hall as having the finest acoustics in the United Kingdom, and the seventh best in the world. Proof of these fine acoustics is that a pre-opening acoustic test demonstrated that if a pin was dropped on stage, the sound could be heard from anywhere in the hall.

When I last walked past it featured ground to roof blue glass, reflecting Centenary Square. It was a lavish project of it's time with design of it's time. I blinked for a short while and while I blinked, Birmingham City Council did this to it.

Some school children were given a model of the existing Symphony Hall and a shoe box, a pair of children's blunt scissors and lots of glue and asked to build a new façade for the building. At least that was what I assumed when I saw this.

But no, apparently some grown ups decided the state of the art Symphony Hall, seventh best in the world, which cost £30 million in 1991 needed a new front door at a cost of another £13.5 million. Cleverly, the large sign saying "Symphony Hall" on the original façade is now so far back that no stranger to Birmingham even knows what the building is, unless they walk a quarter of a mile across to the far end of Centenary Square from where you can just about see it. I am sure a couple of million for a new sign would solve that problem.

In case you were wondering, this is all of it in the photo below. I am not really exaggerating when I say they just stuck a design feature on the front.

The reflecting pool below is also new. In fact the original Centenary Square opened in 1989, was first redesigned in 1991. It has pretty much been a permanent building site ever since. Where this pool now stands was a large statue called "Forward" representing the forward march of Birmingham. Unfortunately, at lunchtime on 17 April 2003, the 'Forward' statue was irreparably damaged by fire. A citizen set fire to it for a laugh. Being fibreglass it went up like a sculpture on fire. It was later removed, as was most of the black smudge which was all that remained. The original fountain disappeared in 2010 and the Eternal Flame was snuffed out.

A new location has been found in the City Centre Gardens in Cambridge Street, just behind the new Library construction site, where it will be surrounded with a newly- laid flower bed. But city bosses insist that the flame will not be re-lit as it is too expensive and needlessly burning gas would fly in the face of the city’s climate change agenda.

It was laughable to include anything with the word "Eternal" in the name, in Centenary Square. Centenary square was named in celebration of the declaration of city status to Birmingham, a very young second city of Britain. By the time it's second centenary comes around I doubt there will be anything left in Centenary Square.

An international design competition was held through the RIBA and the Landscape Institute on behalf of Birmingham City Council in October 2014 to find a design to transform the square. Funding for the competition and development of the square has come from the GBSLEP. £5 million for construction costs has been allocated for the scheme with extra funding for design fees.

GBSLEP = Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership

Don't you love that term "extra funding" which is the bit left blank. Makes it sound like the coffee and biscuits at morning break.

This was a mere 23 years since it's last makeover. Not being able to afford a Burj Khalifa of their own, those Dubaiesque lighting poles also appeared three years ago, just to make sure there was no unobstructed view of anything in the Square.

The square is part of the Commonwealth Social festival to mark the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, including the launch of the official emblem. The emblem is the multi-coloured SS lightning flash you can see picturesquely reflected in the pool. It's possible I suppose that it is supposed to be a B for Birmingham. I hope the swimming events aren't planned for that pool as it is only an inch deep, which would put a swift end to the diving final.

"On 11 June 2019 the council declared a climate emergency and made the commitment to take action to reduce the city’s carbon emissions and limit the climate crisis."

Has anyone at the council worked out their carbon footprint on perpetual changes made to Centenary Square yet? It's probably equivalent to that of an entire small African nation.

This tree below is rooted just about at the centre of where the 1974 library stood until recently. Somewhere above it used to be that Victorian wood panelled Shakespeare room, now in the gold cupola of the new library. The library which was unique and an iconic landmark for decades was chewed up by large machines and spat out into a large rubble heap. It was replaced with about five bland office blocks whose days are probably already numbered, even the one on the left which isn't finished yet.

This is what an inch of water and a £5 million re-design looks like below.

This is the countdown clock for the Commonwealth Games below. It's a sort of Olympics for the small. Countries not people.

The Commonwealth Games is an international multi-sport event involving athletes from the Commonwealth of Nations. The event was first held in 1930, and, with the exception of 1942 and 1946, has taken place every four years since then. The Commonwealth Games were known as the British Empire Games from 1930 to 1950, the British Empire and Commonwealth Games from 1954 to 1966, and British Commonwealth Games from 1970 to 1974.

The Commonwealth of Nations, generally known simply as the Commonwealth, is a political association of 54 member states, almost all of which are former territories of the British Empire. The Commonwealth dates back to the first half of the 20th century with the decolonisation of the British Empire through increased self-governance of its territories. It was originally created as the British Commonwealth of Nations through the Balfour Declaration at the 1926 Imperial Conference, and formalised by the United Kingdom through the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The current Commonwealth of Nations was formally constituted by the London Declaration in 1949, which modernised the community and established the member states as "free and equal".

That was 1949, when all members were declared "free and equal". Of course recently we have discovered that everyone is racist again, who knew? That gap of seventy years when our grandparents and our parents all got along ever increasingly at peace and living in harmony to a degree never seen in all of human history anywhere on the planet, came to an abrupt end with the invention of Critical Race Theory. Now our parents are assuming they have early onset dementia when they learn that actually the most important thing about your neighbour isn't how tidy they keep their front garden, or how likely they are to lend you a cup of sugar, but what colour their skin is.

No doubt the Games will soon be renamed as "The Irrelevant Institution Afflicted by Imperial Amnesia" Games. That's a description by his publisher of Philip Murphy's book "The Empire's New Clothes", he is the director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies at the University of London. This proves there is still a career to be made studying the irrelevant, apparently. The University of London has an entire institute devoted to the study of the irrelevant.

Something that survived the war and the planners, was this building below. It's a shame it survived really as it would have made another lovely blue glass stump.

This is a former bank. Now added to the vast Real Estate collection of the University of Birmingham.

The 10 Nobel Laureates we count among our staff and alumni have contributed to some of science’s greatest discoveries, including in recent times the Higgs Boson and Gravitational Waves. Our research provides innovative solutions to the challenges we face in our city, our region and across the globe.

As you can see it's not possible to get a clean shot of the building as it has been dominated by the new photo bombing light poles. You thought I was exaggerating.

The Birmingham Municipal Bank was a savings bank in the city of Birmingham, England. It was created as the Birmingham Corporation Savings Bank by a 1916 Act of Parliament on a temporary basis and replaced by the Birmingham Municipal Bank in 1919. The growth in business necessitated a larger head office and a new building was opened in Broad Street in 1933.

The former headquarters of the Birmingham Municipal Bank is a Grade II listed building by Thomas Cecil Howitt. The building was opened on 27 November 1933 by Prince George. After the bank vacated the building, it was sold in 2006 to Birmingham City Council. The building was granted grade II listed status on 14 October 1996. In November 2017, the University of Birmingham completed the purchase of the Municipal Bank building.

Wikipedia had a link on the page for this building which takes you in a millisecond to Prince George William of Hanover. I think this may be evidence that you need to take care what you read in Wikipedia. I find it hard to believe that a Prince of Brunswick aged 18, the second-eldest son of Ernest Augustus, Duke of Brunswick and his wife Princess Victoria Louise of Prussia would have opened the Birmingham Municipal Bank in 1933, when we had our very own Prince George, fourth son of King George V and Queen Mary who was a younger brother of kings Edward VIII and George VI.

From 1930 through to 1934, Prince George William of Brunswick attended the elite boarding school Schule Schloss Salem in Überlingen on Lake Constance. Do the elves at Wikipedia think they gave him a week off to travel half way across Europe to open the new Birmingham Municipal Bank?

Incidentally his wife was the sister of our late Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen's husband. That's royal families for you.

EXTERIOR: Centre of north front breaks forward With Tetrastyle colonnade of giant Ionic columns in antis with broad terminal piers. Behind the colonnade, 5 bays, the windows with architraves, the ground floor with grilles and with roundels above; central round-arched doorway in moulded architrave with rosettes and with bronze doors and fanlight grille; flanking the doorway ornate bronze lanterns.

This small key motif below, with another making a pair either side of the entrance, says, leave your cash here and it will be safe. At least until the TSB take over in 1976 and subsequent mergers and amalgamations lead to the banking collapse in 2009 when the government stepped in to buy a 43.3 % stake to stop the whole lot going under.

Next door is an actual bank that is still trading. This is the new headquarters below, of HSBC UK. They don't have a key motif, they have lions, huge ones. I did warn you in part one I would be walking with lions. There is a pair of them guarding the front door and your cash.

A traditional feng shui ceremony to formally introduce HSBC’s iconic lions into Birmingham took place today at the new head office for HSBC UK in Centenary Square, Birmingham. The bronze guardians, nicknamed Stephen and Stitt after two HSBC senior managers in the 1920s, have a proud heritage in the bank, standing guard at HSBC head offices around the globe, including Hong Kong and London. Because of the positive feng shui associated with the lions, people often stroke their noses and paws for luck.

These two lions have not been here long enough to get polished noses yet.

As you can tell, below, this is going to be an iconic replacement for the now destroyed Central Library. You can tell from all the unique detailing, artistic flourishes and novel exotic specialist expensive materials that this is art in the making. In a hundred years from now Birmingham University which will have bought most of the world, will be falling over themselves to restore it to all it's former splendour, no doubt using stone masons and gilders.

This is the back view which sadly doesn't have all the splendour of the front above. The diesel fumes from the generator do however give it quite a romantic feel.

This is a clock sandwich, below, which could stand as an example of how Birmingham has changed and how the people that run the city have changed, during it's hundred years as a city. Both buildings next to the clock are brand new.

At some point, not too far off in the future the building at the back will be torn down and the one on the right will be deemed old fashioned, while the faces of the clock watch the next iteration of the city fall and rise up again.

Nothing we make has value anymore just cost. Cost can be manipulated, justified and balanced on a spreadsheet while value is much rarer. Value would have been looking at the 1990's Symphony Hall and deciding to ride out it's old fashioned look until the time came when it looked retro and then stylish and we could wonder about those who had the vision and skill to build it. Now it's too late.

Birmingham Central Library was designed by the architect John Madin who built most of his work in the city. The time is fast approaching when there won't be a single building of his left standing. There was a tower there at the back that has gone and a library here on the right which has also gone. That was a clock sandwich with Madin slices either side of the tower.

When this clock tower went up nobody could conceive of buildings that would be built and erased in less than a generation by a generation obsessed with a "climate emergency".

It's not a catastrophe anymore. It'll be interesting to find out next week what is worse than an emergency.

In Part 4 I head for the city centre, one ravaged by Covid lockdowns, to see what has changed in two years. There is a flautist and gymnastics and a lot more scaffolding.

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