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Broad Street Design Competition
Reproduced here, is a copy of the advertisement placed by the Bank in January 1931, inviting architects to submit designs for a new Head Office to be constructed in Broad Street.
 
An article in the Birmingham Mail of June 15th 1931 described the result of the design competition:
 

In August next steps will be taken to clear a site in Broad Street, Birmingham (opposite the greensward of the Hall of Memory), to provide for the erection, at a cost of £75,000, of central administrative offices for the Corporation Municipal Bank.

A meeting of the Bank Committee was attended this morning by Sir Reginald Blomfield, the assessor appointed in connection with the designs, for the purpose of intimating the numbers which he had placed first, second and third in the competition, for which premiums of £400, £300, and £150 are to be awarded. The number of architects competing was 112, and 641 plans were submitted.

The chairman (Alderman Sir Percival Bower) opened the sealed envelopes, and it was then found that No 31 design, which was placed first, was the design of Mr Thomas Cecil Howitt, of Exchange Buildings, East Nottingham.

Design 53, which was placed second, was submitted by Messrs S N Cooke and W N Twist, of Sun Buildings, Bennett’s Hill, Birmingham; and design No 15, which was placed third, by Messrs A B Llewellyn Roberts and Michael Waterhouse, of 8, Summers Place, London.

The Bank Committee, under the terms of the competition, have accepted the first design, and arrangements will now be made with Mr T C Howitt to confer with the committee in order that they may take the necessary steps for the placing of the building contract.

Mr Howitt was the successful architect in the competition held in connection with the erection of the new civic buildings at Nottingham.

The whole of the designs submitted to the Bank Committee have been placed for the inspection of architects and members of the City Council in the Loan Collection Gallery of the Birmingham Art Gallery. They will be displayed there for six days.

The new buildings will conform with the general style and lay-out embodied in the scheme for the Civic Centre submitted by Sir Reginald Blomfield a few years ago.
Press coverage of the competition results also included images of the winning and runner-up entries, also reproduced here.
 
 
T Cecil Howitt's winning entry did not command universal support, as two letters to the Birmingham Post (see below) confirm.

Letter to the Editor of the Birmingham Post

June 20th 1931

 

Sir – If it is necessary to justify the seeming presumption of a layman in architecture expressing an opinion on the winning design for the new Municipal Bank in Broad Street, let it be said that even “the man in the street” is bound to be affected by the buildings which he must necessarily pass day by day. No one van be familiar with Broad Street without realising that it affords one of the great opportunities for adding architectural charm and value to our city. We now have the drawings of the first official building in that increasingly important thoroughfare, apart from the Hall of Memory, and I confess, frankly, to disappointment.

It is true that I have not had an opportunity of seeing the full drawings, which I am told reveal particularly fine draughtsmanship, but the question I want to ask is: Why another building in the familiar classical mould? The number of classical porticoes in Birmingham would almost suggest that architects or assessors find it impossible to escape from the influence of the imitation Greek temple we call our “Town Hall”. One is not surprised that the Masonic Temple should be conceived around Ionic columns; but is it really necessary for the adjoining bank to continue the same style?

Let it not be thought that I am foolishly decrying the ancient models. I have revelled in what I have seen of original fragments of ancient Greek and Roman architecture, as indeed, also of the Later Norman and Early English and Perpendicular. My enquiry is whether we must be bound to the past, whether Greek or Gothic.

Have the architects of today no original thought to express? Those who know anything of architectural development in Sweden and Germany – two countries I happen to know – will be familiar with the answer to this question. Thought of today can create its own art-forms, in architecture as in other realms. Such buildings as the Town Hall and new Art Gallery in Stockholm, and some of the churches and secular buildings of Hamburg, for instance, strike a new and distinctive note. I fail to believe that the architects of our own country are, or need to be, merely slavish imitators of the past. Then why should we not, in our official buildings at any rate, give an opportunity to new and creative design? The new Municipal Bank does not appear to say anything at all; it merely joins the family of the Town Hall and the Masonic Temple. In my humble judgement it is a great opportunity missed.

A city building conceived in the new, simple, unfettered and direct form, which is illustrated in many of the new Continental buildings, and in just a few in our own country, would have been a source of interest to our city, an encouragement to fresh and original thought, and an arresting influence in the life of “the man in the street”. It is in his interest, particularly, that I express genuine disappointment at this further indication of unnecessary artistic bondage.

 

E BENSON PERKINS

The Central Hall, Birmingham, June 19th 1931

 

Letter to the Editor of the Birmingham Post

June 23rd 1931

 

Sir – May I, as an architect, express my appreciation of the letter in Saturday’s “Post” of the Rev E Benson Perkins?

Whilst one cannot deny that in many respects the winning design is a beautiful thing, it does, as Mr Perkins says, hark back to classic precedents. And one does begin to wonder if the opportunity will ever occur to try what can be done with modern materials and to meet modern needs.

For the architect, Greek is the beginning of architecture, and it seems absurd to ask him to go back now to the beginning, to ignore all that has been achieved in the past two thousand years. It is true that we must study the past; thus was produced Greece itself; from the study of Greek and Roman was evolved Byzantine, and from the latter Gothic – buildings which, in their time, were absolutely new and modern, but rooted deep in the past for all that. They came into being by the application of past lessons to present needs and materials; they were the result of experimental design. What could we not produce by the critical study of past problems and their solutions, of the triumphs and failures of the past, with a concurrent study of engineering in steel and concrete – the study of our modern needs and modern materials? The great legacy that the Greeks have left us in their recognition of the aesthetic element in construction; and since their days the great success of architecture have been due to great engineering. The Romans were great architects entirely because they were great engineers; there is little of real beauty in their buildings, but they are supremely wonderful, and wonder is one of the elements of fine architecture. We wonder at Greek perfection and Roman engineering and at that combination of the two which we call Byzantine. The men of the Middle Ages were great architects too by virtue of their skill and daring in building, in the successful engineering of their materials. It is most important to note that all of these great styles of architecture arose through continual experiment; therein lay their life. Renaissance itself was a living art so long as it remained true to experimental construction. They were as much a product of their age and circumstance as were the feudal system, party politics, or the steam locomotive of theirs. It is from this feeling – that as they are so must have been – that we derive the satisfaction and contentment that is ours in their contemplation. We view with equal pleasure the Parthenon, the Pantheon, or Notre Dame, unless we are architectural bigots; and to these I may add the Forth Bridge and the Gare d’Orleans – classic instances by now.

External beauty is dependent upon many other things than mere form. Something that has been self-consciously designed, something that we feel to have arisen because its author considered it would look “nice” carried out in that matter, we somehow are not completely satisfied with. “There is no substitute for thought.” Every reference to the past should increase the mental labour of the enquirer, not serve as another modern labour-saving device, as it so generally does. How can architecture improve if one accepts the conclusion that the best has been done, that there is nothing left for one to do but adopt and adapt the ideas of other men? We are not free to do as we like – far from it – but there is no need so to imprison our intellect – the mental grappling with and overcoming of our problems.

 

A L SNOW

110 Colmore Row, June 22nd 1931

T Cecil Howitt, FRIBA
 
Architect's Drawing
 
Head Office Plans
100
 
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