13 March 2015

Paradise Lost

'Red Brick Paradise'- Paradise Street, c. 1850, with the Town Hall, Christ Church and Queen's College.

The title of John Milton's epic poem from 1667, 'Paradise Lost', seems perfect in name, if not in theme, for the changes that will occur around Birmingham's Paradise Forum over the next few years. The controversial, but undeniably iconic Central Library will be demolished, along with the atrium of Paradise Forum inside, and the hidden concrete cave of Paradise Place will disappear as well. The developers are calling the proposed plans for the dramatic transformation of the area simply 'Paradise'; which makes me think of all the lost Paradise's, since the name was first used in the 1760s.

Trade card for Brown and Hardman of Paradise Street.


The first of Birmingham's 'Paradise's' was one of red brick Georgian refinement and "the residence [...] of several highly respectable professional gentlemen, as well as the establishments of some eminent merchants and manufacturers".* As with elsewhere in Birmingham, even some of the finest streets contained manufactories and workshops; Birmingham's own idea of 'paradise' being a hive of industry, but with a face of refinement. In the 1820s the top of Paradise Street (now part of Victoria Square) was described as "one of the most pleasing and lively spots in the town [...] there is a continual succession of objects; and being the centre of a busy manufacturing district, the throng of artisans leaving their several workshops, at the hour of One, and hurrying to their meal,has a particularly animated and cheerful effect, especially in this time of plentiful employment".* Sounds quite a bit like the area today!

This (image below) is that area at the top of Paradise Street in about 1848, with the 'throng of artisans', as well as all manner of others.

The Town Hall and Queen's College by Samuel Lines, c. 1848.
Find out more about this painting here.


Birmingham's Victorian library, which faced the Town Hall

The Victorian 'Paradise' replaced the red brick one with grand Gothic, Italiante and neo-Classical buildings, one of the most prominent being the complex of the Birmingham and Midland Institute and the Public Library*. The Paradise the Victorian's produced here was one of free (or at least affordable) learning for all, with the BMI providing education and evening classes for Birmingham's working people, and the library next door offering over 50,000 (by 1879) books to be lent. This was a period of civic pride, of creating buildings of cultural significance for more than just the town's elite. This is perhaps an idea that should be reverted to, in this time of massive cuts to Birmingham's libraries and other cultural institutions.


In the 1960s Paradise spread round the corner; the old Victorian library was knocked down and John Madin's new Central Library built nearby with a concrete garden behind called Paradise Place. This Paradise of the late 20th century is the one that I remember growing up in Birmingham, one of grey lines and rugged angles. And this Paradise is truly 'lost'; it leads nowhere and entices no-one, so nobody ever finds it except by accident or if they know it's there. There is a lot written about this development and the general failure of the Brutalist vision of the 1960s, including here.

Paradise Place by Chris Whippet
The word 'ironic' is often used when describing the name of
Paradise Place.


The new development encompasses more of the original Georgian Paradise Street than the Central Library complex did, so is a truer 'Paradise' in the spatial sense than ever before. But is it the right way to go? It is probably a daft question to ask, because the area is on the verge of being demolished, but I cant help agreeing with many others that the space could be something amazing.

Paradise Place at the back of Central Library, Birmingham.
Taken May 2012.

* designed by Edward Middleton Barry in the 1850s (though completed by other architects) and rebuilt after fire by Joseph Henry Chamberlain in the 1880s

1 comment:

  1. You might be interested in this photo of Paradise Place which I took a few years ago http://lymescapes.co.uk/galleryofLymeRegisphotos_90379.html#photos_id=847440