words: Adam Carthy
images: Jay Rajpra
A lot of discussion around the controversy of brutalist architecture has been stirred up over the past few years, with the main focus being on those buildings either already demolished or under threat of demolition. A lot of the stories told have been about the sad loss of iconic brutalist buildings or of the failures to preserve what are arguably structures of historic value from developers. But in our investigations of Birmingham’s brutalist architecture we came across a beautiful story about one building that stands bold, but subtly, and quietly gets on with being a great concrete building; The Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
One of the founding premises of Space Play is to explore how our ability to understand and represent architecture could be translated into artwork and products that would celebrate the emotional connections that people have with buildings. Locals to Birmingham, and with the imminent demolition of John Madin’s Central Library, it seemed poignant to explore the stories of some of Birmingham’s 60’s and 70’s concrete architecture.
Our investigations started by selecting five buildings within the city that we felt were overlooked as great pieces of architecture but would be understood and accepted within the rising controversial trend of appreciating concrete buildings from this era. We wanted to uncover and share the architectural stories behind each of these buildings to see if we could convince more people of their value. This is our story of the investigations into the Rep, one of Birmingham’s success stories from the 1970’s.
Everybody knows the Rep, but no one really looks at it. This was certainly the case for me, until my first visit to the building to begin our brutalist case study. I thought I knew this building well and it had become a backdrop structure for my own experiences of Birmingham’s urban land- scape. But on this sunny day, and especially from certain angles, the building danced. Through renewed eyes I fell completely in love with it. It’s complex but composed forms and textures are a delight to explore, and its heavy concrete formwork somehow oats; weightless, giving a sense of ease to its stance.
The textured concrete façade was designed to resemble the rough bark texture of a tree, but the texture also creates a clever self-cleaning detail by allowing rain to run down the external walls. The curves of the windows conceal beautifully detailed drainage channels to preserve the window seals, and it’s these little elements that really make the building special.
The building expresses its internal functions openly, the 22 meter high y-tower rising above the main stage being the most obvious example of this. Everything about it articulates the grandeur of theatre. Internally the glazed façade pours light into the two-storey gallery with the distinctive forms of the bowed concrete arcade casting evocative shadows into the space. The complex but legible and welcoming gallery space is almost cave-like with its walls and stair structures holding on to the textures of the timber shuttering used for the concrete formwork. There is poetry to this architecture as well as function.
The design of the Rep is also distinctive as a theatre. The brief given to the architect, Graham Winteringham, integrated technical complexities that theatre design had not conventionally dealt with. A particular requirement for the Rep was that the seating should be designed in a ‘single rake’ configuration, with no balconies or boxes for the wealthy to parade. And with the proscenium style stage being 15-metres deep, this needed great technical detailing to make sure the proposed 900 capacity theatre offered good views from every seat. In addition, the building is positioned over part of the train line that runs right across Centenary Square, connecting to New Street Station from the north, so clever acoustic design was needed. Winteringham, a specialist in theatre design, worked with engineers ‘ARUP’ who had just completed Sydney Opera House, to create a design that would resolve all of these requirements. The building stands as a great example of technical and aesthetic design being resolved into architecture.
The theatre was designed for a completely different physical context and within a different cultural context than it stands in today. But its form and style sits calm and cool amongst a changing and imposing landscape full of post-modern gimmicks. The concrete arcade of the façade facing onto Centenary Square was designed so that it would reflect in a water pool which was pro- posed but never built. The building had also been sited centrally in the original city square, which planned to be three times the size of the current space. Yet as the grand schemes of Birmingham faltered and changed, the Rep held out.
Great architecture doesn’t come about just because of good architects though. It is created by the vision of a great client, which a good architect is able to capture and create. This is a major reason for the success of the Rep. The story really starts with Sir Barry Jackson, one of Birmingham’s great visionaries who set up the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1912 (now called the Old Rep). His bold and innovative ideas about how the art of theatre should develop and his passion for progression led to the creation of the Birmingham Rep as it is known today. His hands-on approach to managing the Rep helped to form the initial ideas throughout the 1950’s and to bring the City Council funding on board that led to the creation of this current building; a legacy wholly appropriate.
The stories of failed or failing brutalist architecture all find common themes based around a lack of proper investment in maintenance and servicing. Cut backs in material budgets as well as poor management and building use are all underlying factors for those iconic brutalist examples that have been lost. But, although the Rep was publicly funded, the running of the theatre stems out of the vision established by Sir Barry Jackson and this has set up the Birmingham Rep as one of the most innovative and longest running theatres in the UK. Sir Barry Jackson died in 1961, sadly ten years before this building was complete, and although the theatre has had difficult times, its story as a successful brutalist building is as much about his influence into the running and management of the theatre as any architectural design.
This is the first instalment of a two-part piece on the Rep. The Rep is a registered charity and relies on the generosity of others to sustain their work on stage and within the community. There are many ways to support the Rep including exploring the building for yourself by booking a back-stage tour here.