Unit: Modern Gazetteer

Unit Leader | Michael Dring, BCU  |   Unit Tutor | Luke Nagle, MW Architects

The  Modern Gazetteer (est. 2011) is an ongoing interdisciplinary research project, to support and develop collaborative working and thinking. In the spirit of the Gazetteer, projects are responsive to site, and place an emphasis on researching, revealing and sharing ideas.

The context for our study this year has been Birmingham, specifically the Inner Ring Road. Conceived in 1917 and constructed between 1954 – 74, the road fundamentally reconfigured the landscape of the city, apparently breaking with tradition in the form and culture of the city.
The earliest impetus for change was one of bringing ‘communal order’ to the city in the wake of uncontrolled expansion, the horrors of WWI and new technologies. Civic improvements were to be achieved through new roads as well as municipal and ceremonial buildings to embellish and extend the historic centre, drawing inspiration from the Viennese Ringstraße around which we based parallel studies. The subsequent period post WWII saw change justified on grounds of bomb damage, of improving social welfare and of eliminating traffic congestion, the road ‘instrumental’ in catalyzing changes of use and promoting new modernist urban typologies and forms borrowed from Europe and North America.

As a ‘city street of novel character, not an urban motorway, not principally a traffic street or a shopping street’, pedestrians were segregated from traffic, literally making new ground for new civic and commercial buildings. The Highgate Initiative (1988) and Big City Plan (2008) identified the ‘concrete collar’ of the road as a restriction to the growth of the city, and since then key parts have been demolished and reconfigured at Paradise Circus, Mass House and Moor Street with plans for more change. 

Students of The Modern Gazetteer entered into a dialogue on topics associated with the spaces and buildings of the ring road/straße, drawing reference from past and present critical voices on the questions of architectural continuity, style and ornament, transport and urbanism, and attitudes to preservation and conservation in the modernist city. Workshops on techniques and methods of recording, collecting and archiving information through photography, modelling, drawing and bricolage guided the creation of a Gazetteer, a shared resource and provocation for our student’s work presented here.

In doing so we ask; If architecture can be seen to represent our collective memory and endeavours, and the city is communicative space that tells us about the changing culture and values of society (creativity/participation, emancipation/production etc), what should our attitude be to conservation of twentieth century architecture and urban form? If architecture and construction is a main contributor to global warming, should we as architects pursue originality and novelty that resists change, or should we show greater concern for tradition, continuity and adaptability? Are they exclusive, or is there a middle ground?

The Parkside Building
5 Cardigan Street
Birmingham B4 7BD UK
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