Birmingham’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry has permission to take down its 1958 building, designed by the prolific John Madin. This is yet another Birmingham Madin building going, after the very elegant Post and Mail tower. And while we failed to get either building listed, we are now hopeful that the Chamber’s impressive mural by artist John Piper can be safely relocated and transferred into the care of the Barber Institute at Birmingham University. The abstract piece is most impressive from close up, with a lively surface formed from tesserae protruding to different degrees. It is a very tactile piece of art and deserves to be placed at a safe location, at eye level, and with custodians that will take care of it. The Barber wants it and this could be just the right solution. We are also delighted to have the Tate’s sculpture conservator on board to advise on the best method of moving the mural. This is not a straightforward operation – the piece is fixed not to a sub-frame but directly onto the wall behind, which, to make matters more complicated, is structural. The mural will need to be cut into sections, attached to a frame and then moved.
Large sporting facilities built in the post war era have now reached a state where they require major maintenance works, reaching from changing room overhauls to the need for asbestos removal, and tackling problems with glare and air conditioning. There are worrying cases all over the country, from Leeds International Pool to the Public Baths in Coventry and the sports centre in Crystal Palace. Coventry Council is thinking of building new facilities elsewhere in town, but what to do with their listed baths? The Society tries to encourage refurbishment as we fear that the buildings might be left vacant and become derelict, with an alternative use being difficult to find. Coventry Council has yet to decide which policy it will adopt; remodelling the building for modern sports use, or selling it to a developer. Crystal Palace meanwhile is much more seriously threatened; 15 March saw the deadline for an open competition to build a new sports centre – which would make the listed pool obsolete. We are keeping up the pressure on the London Development Agency to retain the building.
After years of failed attempts to communicate with London Underground about works to their stations the Society is now being consulted on applications. This is good news and we are glad that we are now able to have input into changes to this unique assemblage of important C20 buildings. English Heritage has put the Underground on their list for pilot projects to test the forthcoming Heritage Partnership Agreements which, EH hope, will make the process of applying for listed building consent easier. But while we are waiting for this to be tested, the Society would like to see a much more strategic policy on some of the most pressing issues; hardly any London Underground Stations have disabled access and this is now a real problem that will need to be tackled. Ramps and lifts need to be designed carefully to fit visually with the pure modern shapes of the Charles Holden stations, for example. Oakwood Station is a case that presents a real challenge – the platforms are at lower level, covered by an elegant concrete canopy with built-in timber benches, and the ticket hall sailing above. Currently access is from the ticket hall onto the platform via a staircase. Tube Lines who manage the station, have applied for a bridge link on stilts with a lift at platform end to create stepless access. This could be an important precedent of how to deal with access and we are keen to see it done right. So far the design, heavy handed and overstructured, falls short of the exemplary solution that is needed, and we hope that we can negotiate a better design.
Tiles are another concern – most C20 tube stations have them, and many are losing them at the moment. London Underground want to see their stations clean and feel that chipped or crazed tiles ought to go; a draft paper recently issued advocates wholesale replacement. East Finchley Station is an example where tiles could be lost soon.
But are not those imperfections and traces of history valuable in their own right?