A New View of the University’s Brutalist Masterpiece

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One of the undoubted benefits of the University’s recently completed Green Heart is that it opens up a new view of Muirhead Tower, which is arguably the finest example of brutalist architecture in Birmingham. This is particularly the case since the tragic demolition of the former Central Library in 2016. This week’s fine weather has shown the building in a particularly good light and it is apt that this is the Guardian’s ‘Concrete Week’; of which more later.

Muirhead Tower was designed by Philip Dowson of Arup Associates and completed in 1969. It was Dowson’s second building on the campus; the first being the School of  Metallurgy and Materials building of 1964. Both of these buildings are finely engineered examples of the brutalist style and, in my view, both have more than stood the test of time.

Muirhead Tower actually comprises two offset towers, connected by a linking services stack. Formally the building is a kind of hybrid, in which two steel and glass boxes are encased within over-sized concrete frames that subtly reference traditional ‘pillar and beam’ construction. The floors of the 12 storey tower alternate; four deep concrete ‘beams’, supported by two twinned columns, conceal larger lecture rooms and above each ‘beam’ are two fully-glazed floors of seminar rooms and offices. At ground level, beneath the northern tower, a large lecture hall with a raked underside is suspended (see below), while the southern tower provides the two main entrances and the foyer, now with a coffee bar extension.

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There were several design problems with the Muirhead Tower, some of which developed over time. Many of the rooms were excessively draughty and cold in high winds; the connecting corridors leaked in heavy rain; and south-facing spaces frequently over-heated in sunshine. The Tower also featured a paternoster instead of lifts.  This was a kind of vertical conveyor belt that you jumped on and off as and when you reached the floor you needed. Speaking from experience, it was exciting if somewhat scary to use – but it made movement up and down the building slow and inefficient.

To address these and other issues, Muirhead Tower was repaired and remodelled by Associated Architects, in consultation with Philip Dowson, between 2007 and 2009. The exterior was kept largely intact but the internal spaces were reconfigured and new lift towers installed. On the whole these alterations have been successful. However, the ‘brise-soleil’ that have been erected on the south facing facades obscure the concrete frames and it would have been more satisfactory to have used solar control glass. More problematic are the new lift towers; these have been clad in stainless steel and their polished finish is ill at ease beside the rough concrete of the original structure. ‘Weathering’ steel or Corten with its raw rust-like appearance would have been more in keeping.

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But these are quibbles. There is no doubt that Muirhead Tower, which has loomed majestically over the campus since 1969, is an outstanding piece of architecture. And its 50th anniversary comes at a time when there is, on the one hand, growing appreciation of brutalist architecture and, on the other hand, concern about the environmental costs of concrete production. The Guardian’s current Concrete Week highlights both sides of the argument; you can read more here.

JS

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