People are drawn to good modern architecture, writes David Rudlin. It’s just the bad urbanism that lets it down

David Rudlin_index

David Rudlin

It was the letter in the Guardian I came across first. Somebody writing to tell Olly Wainwright that it was all well and good him mourning the loss of John Madin’s “old brutalist library” in Birmingham, but he hadn’t had to visit the building, with its “squeaking escalators and crumbling concrete” to study for his A levels. It caught my eye because I had.

Back in the 1970s, a few years after the building opened, and long before its core was filled with retail tat, I spent time there studying for my A-levels. And I loved it! The interior had a sophisticated style that made the younger me feel privileged to be there.

I felt the same about much of Birmingham. I remember a school photography project where I focussed on the amazing sculptural columns at the base of Richard Seifert’s ATV Tower, home of the regional television company. I didn’t know it was by Seifert, or indeed who Seifert was, but I thought the building was amazing.

I had also been on a school trip to an architect’s studio on the top of the Rotunda. As I learnt from Olly’s Guardian piece, this must have been the offices of James Roberts, the building’s architect. Roberts designed another of my favourite Birmingham buildings, the Ringway on Smallbrook Queensway. I once nominated it for an Academy of Urbanism Award but apparently it is now under threat of demolition.

I was not the only one at the time to love these buildings

Roberts had planned a revolving restaurant at the top of the Rotunda and, when it proved unfeasible, he instead took the top two floors for his own offices. It was the most exciting place imaginable to my schoolboy self, full of models of amazing buildings. It was one of the reasons I got into this business.

Robert Adam argued in a column for this publication a few weeks ago that architects, seeing themselves part of the avant-guard, have wilfully designed buildings that the public doesn’t like. In the face of clear evidence of what the public does like – he didn’t use the word ‘traditional’, but we know what he meant – architects have continued to design buildings that only really appeal to other architects.

Robert puts a 70 year timescale on this, so he definitely includes Birmingham’s brutalist buildings. And yet, I was not the only one at the time to love these buildings. As someone who grew up in Birmingham I recall that, when it was first built, people were excited by the brutalist city centre. The good people of Birmingham, including my working-class parents were incredibly proud of the way that the city had been transformed. Visiting relatives were taken on trips to the then new (and now demoished) Bull Ring Centre and the modern wonders of the city centre.

When I was researching the post-war redevelopment of Coventry a few years ago I came across the same reaction. The exhibition of the new city centre entitled Coventry of Tomorrow, Towards a Beautiful City, which took place before the old city centre was destroyed by German bombing, had been visited by 5,000 people, plus organised school trips for every child in the city. The reception again was enthusiastic, the public flocking to lectures by Wiliam Holford and Thomas Sharpe. Modernism was popular, it was seen as, well… ‘modern’ and that was a good thing in those days.

They had been sold a bright shining future and it had turned into the grim reality of an underpass on a wet winter’s evening

Robert may be right that the public fell out of love with modernism. I certainly saw this with my parents in Birmingham. But this was because modernism failed, or at least modernist town planning did, which is an important distinction.

It was not that modernism had been imposed on what Robert calls a ”stubbornly conventional public who had failed, after at least three generations, to catch up”. It is because the public felt cheated and misled. They had been sold a bright shining future and it had turned into the grim reality of an underpass on a wet winter’s evening.

Yearning for traditionalism is an understandable response to this. I, myself have made the case against modernist town planning and in favour of the principles of urban design, which I would call timeless rather than traditional. But my takeaway from this story is that the public is perfectly willing to embrace modern architecture. The worry, as Olly points out, is that modernism is being replaced not with traditional architecture, but with insipid, glass-clad anywhere buildings that my schoolboy self would never have got excited about.