Ten buildings that showcase Birmingham’s brutalist history

The Ringway Centre in Birmingham

A new book titled Birmingham: The Brutiful Years celebrates the UK city’s brutalist structures. Here Birmingham-based creative Sharonjit Sutton, who designed the volume, picks 10 favourites.

The UK’s second city was a hotspot for post-war construction and innovation, though its modernist architecture has not always been widely appreciated.

“I think many things from Birmingham are seen as ‘second rate’, which I think stems from historical prejudices to do with class amongst other things,” Sutton told Dezeen.

“Birmingham is always having to prove itself which is why I think so much gets overlooked. The fact that there are hardly any original, quintessentially brutalist buildings left is a testament to that.”

Brutalist buildings “were integral in bringing communities back together”

Published by The Modernist Society, Birmingham: The Brutiful Years contains essays on 22 examples of brutalism in Birmingham, from shopping centres to pieces of public art and a giant road intersection.

In particular, the book highlights the work of three home-grown architects whose work reshaped Birmingham after world war two: John Madin, Graham Winteringham and James A Roberts, who between them designed many of the city’s best-known brutalist buildings.

“They were integral in bringing communities back together after the second world war and had the primary function of looking after the communities that needed them,” Sutton said of Birmingham’s brutalist symbols. “But they are becoming harder to maintain in the city with the wave of gentrification that is creeping in.”

Each essay was originally written for The Birmingham Post by The Brutiful Action Group, a collective of local residents who came together seven years ago to raise the profile of Birmingham’s brutalist buildings as the city’s Central Library was about to be demolished.

Many of the buildings featured in the book continue to be under threat, but Sutton believes it is important that they are preserved.

“Not only do they give us some history to hold on to, they are spaces that we can repurpose for future generations,” she added.

Book “presents a case for Birmingham’s architecture”

“I hope the book presents a case for Birmingham’s architecture and our brutalist history, and that it is a step forward in convincing the powers that be to think about how people benefit from the buildings and structures we already have, and how we can make these work,” Sutton continued.

Birmingham: The Brutiful Years is available for pre-order and will be released in September to coincide with Birmingham Heritage Week, which runs from 9 to 18 September.

Here is Sutton’s selection of 10 brutalist structures in Birmingham:

The Rotunda in Birmingham

The Rotunda by James A Roberts (1965)

“The Rotunda is part commercial space and part residential space situated in the Bullring Shopping Centre. Like many post-war buildings around Birmingham it has a retro-futuristic feel about it. Even now, it almost feels like an alien spaceship has made its permanent home in the centre of town!

“One of my favourite parts of the Rotunda is the relief sculpture by John Poole that remains on the ground floor surrounded by racks of clothing in what is now the Zara shop. This public art piece almost looks like a secret message left by alien beings that may inhabit this spaceship-like structure – at risk of being lost in a mountain of blazers and shirts.”

The Ringway Centre in Birmingham

The Ringway Centre by James A Roberts (1962)

“Seemingly benign, The Ringway Centre is an impressive feat of engineering that hugs the ring road through to the Bullring.

“Although it is woefully under-maintained, the building has details that need to be observed to be appreciated – such as the repetitive relief tiles that fill the face of the building and are contrasted by rows of smooth glass.

“As well as housing many businesses and some of the city’s best graffiti, it offers great shelter when waiting for the bus in the rain!”

The Sentinels towers in Birmingham
Photo is by Oosoom

The Sentinels by James A Roberts (1971)

“Although these buildings may be seen as nothing special (they’re just tower blocks, right?) they’re two of the tallest in Birmingham and represent the importance of safe council housing in all parts of the city.

“Over the decades, the residents of these tower blocks have tirelessly campaigned for safe waste systems, improved security, accessibility features and care for residents. This goes to show the importance of living spaces being designed for the communities that live in them.

“These buildings are also the results of migrant labour, with overlooked Irish and Indian builders bringing James Roberts’ vision to life.”

The Birmingham Repertory Theatre by Graham Winteringham

The Birmingham Repertory Theatre by Graham Winteringham (1971)

“The Rep is a timeless building. It feels exciting and brand new, which might be to do with the generous use of glass. The arched windows seem to echo the interiors of older Victorian theatres, which gives it that theatrical edge.

“Despite how much the buildings around The Rep have changed, it still remains coherent in the landscape and retains its own charm. It’s something we never really think about as it’s one of those buildings that are ‘a part of the furniture’, which is partly owed to the fact that it caters to such a diverse audience and is accessible to everyone.”

The underside of Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham

Spaghetti Junction by Evan Owen Williams (1972)

“Another Brummie structure that is quite surreal is the infamous Spaghetti Junction, the destination for many school trips growing up.

“On paper it looks like it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Hilariously summed up by comedic legend Ken Dodd, it’s ‘the eighth wonder of the world… you get on and wonder how to get off’.

“From a pedestrian’s perspective, the graffiti-adorned space under Spaghetti Junction is almost tranquil, with bursts of greenery combatting the fumes from the cars overhead. It also offers shelter to the homeless community in the area who are often ushered out of other spaces. The underbelly of Spaghetti Junction is definitely an overlooked area.”

Hockley Circus Climbing Wall in Birmingham by William Mitchell

Hockley Circus Climbing Wall by William Mitchell (1968)

“The Hockley Circus Climbing Wall is an important piece of public art and architecture that has stood the test of time.

“It is beautiful, playful and, most importantly, accessible to different communities. Its interactive nature is what makes it exciting, and it stands out against the environment whilst looking quite organic with its tentacle-like patterns and rocky formations.

“It’s very rare to see something so playful that hasn’t been gatekept so I’m glad to hear that the mural has recently been given a listed status, which means it will be there for future generations to enjoy.”

Corporation Square in Birmingham by Frederick Gibberd

Corporation Square by Frederick Gibberd (1966)

“Corporation Square (or The Square) is externally a ‘no frills’ type of building, but is great in terms of spatial design. It houses many small eateries, independent shops, an indoor market and a music venue called The Ballroom – previously named The Hummingbird and also The Carling Academy.

“This important venue, which once hosted The Clash, Bob Marley, Deep Purple, Nirvana and The Ramones (some of my heroes), has been recently revived as The Forum and continues to show live music.”

Tricorn House in Birmingham

Tricorn House by Kaye Firmin and Partners (1976)

“Although there is an abundance of office spaces in central Birmingham, I think this building is just so visually striking. Another example of a spaceship-like building that transcends the traditions that came before it.

“Tricorn House was originally designed so you could view both sides simultaneously from the front, but this has been negated by a new accommodation block.

“When viewed from one of the top floors in the adjacent buildings, however, you can appreciate the magnitude of Tricorn House. It looks like it could take off any moment with flames trailing behind it.”

Old Birmingham Central Library by John Madin before demolition

Old Birmingham Central Library by John Madin (1973)

“Of course, I have to include the old Birmingham Library, which was demolished in 2016 to make way for an updated Paradise Circus.

“This upside-down-wedding-cake of a building appeared to defy gravity when viewed from one angle – as if it should fall forward somehow. The windows were strategically placed as strips beneath each layer, seemingly non-existent from the outside.

“Inside the library was a bit of a maze, bigger on the inside than it looked from the outside, but it managed to maintain a welcoming and cosy atmosphere that you’d want from your local library.”

New Street station signal box

New Street station signal box by Bicknell & Hamilton and W R Headley (1965)

“This mysterious building encapsulates brutalist values with its unfinished concrete exterior and devotion to function.

“The accordion-like structure makes it look almost kinetic, like a giant Jack-in-the-box springing out of the ground. The variety of textures makes it a dynamic and exciting building to look at, playful almost.

“Although the signal box is Grade-II listed, I can’t help but wonder what it will become when its function is obsolete. How else could it serve the community?”

The photography is courtesy of The Brutiful Action Group unless otherwise stated.

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