14 January 2013

Alternative Cityscapes: The Other Town Hall #1

How the Town Hall might have looked if John Fallows had won the
competition to build. Fallows came 2nd in the competition.



















GUEST ARTICLE: By Anthony Peers, author of the book Birmingham Town Hall, available to buy now. See below.

The Triennial Musical Festival of October 1834 was celebrated in a big way. Held every three years since the 1760s, the by now internationally renowned festival had had to be cancelled two years on the trot. After a five year wait this highly popular society event was eagerly anticipated. There was a sound reason for the postponement of the festival: It had taken much longer than originally anticipated to construct the new venue in which the evening concerts were to be performed. There had been much criticism in the press about the delays in the building process. Hampered by strikes, crippling budgetary constraints and challenging issues with stone procurement the project’s architects and their contractors had worked themselves to the bone, eventually succumbing, in spring 1834, to bankruptcy. That the necessary remaining works were undertaken in time to render the building fit to hold the October Festival was something of a miracle.

The fact is things could all have turned out even worse had the Streets Commissioners, the unelected body of townsmen who commissioned the building, not been quite so sharp in relation to the project funding. Although it appears that not one of them had any experience in building contracts, most members of the committee – which was charged with choosing the design for the Town Hall, appointing the architect and setting the budget – were in trade and thus well versed in striking a bargain. First up they held an architectural competition. Although their offering of £100 for the winner was far from generous, the competition for this prestigious project attracted as many as 70 entrants. Having eventually chosen their preferred design the Streets Commissioners more than got their money’s worth from the competition through asking the winning architects (for there were two of them, working in partnership) to amend their design to incorporate elements seen in some of the other submissions. Such sharp practice and tight-fistedness by the client continued through the course of the contract.

With the architects and the contractors all but ruined by the Streets Commissioners’ unflinching parsimony, it is all too easy to see these, the town’s forefathers, as the villains of the piece. However, these men were acting on behalf of the people. The funds required for the construction of the Town Hall had to be raised through a public rate - the budget had to be tight. From our early 21st Century perspective it is interesting to reflect on the thought that if the Town Hall had been commissioned by a less commercially savvy client the ‘pride of Birmingham’ would almost certainly never have been commissioned, let alone seen through to completion.

The architectural competition itself was fraught with potential pit-holes about which the Streets Commissioners successfully negotiated their way. One, a classic of such competitions, was the temptation to fall for the ‘too good to be true’ submission. Evidence that this ruse was tried on in the Town Hall competition can be observed in Birmingham’s Central Library where the full set of competition drawings, executed by the Birmingham based John Fallows, are archived (see below and top). Producing designs for an impressive and highly decorative building - which patently could not have been built within the specified budget - this architect chanced his arm, clearly hoping that the competition assessors would be so won over by his beautifully produced presentation drawings that they would disregard all other submissions. The Streets Commissioners’ native instincts won out : Comparing this impossibly grandiose design with the other (pared back) proposals, they smelled a rat – in no way would Fallows’ submission be realisable within the budget. Recognition of the fact that they were indeed mightily impressed with Fallows’ submission can be seen in the fact that this architect was awarded the second prize in the competition.

Interior of the un-built Town Hall designed by John Fallows




















Had the Streets Commissioners fallen for Fallows’ enticing ruse it can only be imagined that the outcome would have been failure and disappointment. The process of constructing the Hansom and Welch designed Town Hall may have been accompanied by delays and disasters but the building was, eventually, completed. This magnificent temple of a building stands as a testament to the collective civic spirit of the people of Birmingham, the Streets Commissioners’ thrift and the ‘never-say-die’ graft and determination of its youthful architects.

Cover photo by James Davies/English Heritage
You can discover much more about the fascinating history of Birmingham Town Hall in my recently released book. Published by Lund Humphries, it is a hardback measuring 26.2 x 23.2 x 2.8 cm. The book’s 100,000 words are generously illustrated with nearly 300 images, the majority of which are reproduced in colour. The RRP is £30.00.

Buy on Amazon.

Fallows' submission drawings are courtesy of Birmingham Library and Archive Services.

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