Review: Paradise Lost: History in the Un-Making
There is a folk saying about Birmingham - “that it will be nice when it’s finished”. For me, a near lifelong resident, the sprawling second city’s incomprehensibility and apparently perpetual identity crisis is actually a major component of its personality. Once you get your head around this, it actually becomes quite appealing...
The latest documentary filmmaker to tackle the problem of capturing and articulating Birmingham head on is Andy Howlett. Begun in 2013, Howlett’s Paradise Lost: History in the Un-Making boldly attempts to document the story of John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library from the time shortly after it closed (in favour of the new Mecanoo designed structure on Centenary Square) up until it’s demolition in early 2016.
Watching the footage Howlett shot of Paradise Circus in the mid-2010s, I was struck by just how utterly and delightfully bonkers a place it was. The Central Library and its surrounding complex was an important and formative place for me, which I visited very frequently for most of the first quarter century of my life. However, it was only by viewing it through Howlett’s lens, five years after it vanished into the maw of the concrete crusher, that I fully appreciated how unusual it has become to find such a place at the heart of a British city. I enjoyed Howlett’s efforts to access, document and muse upon some of the very odd, probably only partially finished, spaces underneath Paradise Circus. Alongside the sheer, sublime, totalising audacity and thrill of the complex's brutalist styling, it was these underpasses, undercrofts and weirdly empty spaces that made it distinctive.
Nostalgic musings aside, where Paradise Lost really gets into its stride is in the deciphering of the historical moment which brought the complex into being, and the more recent forces which led to it being left incomplete, neglected, and eventually torn down. Howlett’s interviews with people who appreciated and/or sought to save the complex, alongside his own reflections on “the right to the city”, are interspersed with an impressive battery of archival footage. This found footage is brought together with the biographies of two of the key figures in the reshaping of post-Second World War Birmingham, Herbet Manzoni and John Madin, to tell a story about modernist architecture, the post-war consensus and the eternally rapacious nature of property development.
Reflections on the recent past and the egalitarian nature (or not) of modern architecture aside, perhaps the most interesting facet of the Paradise Circus story Howlett uncovers is the sub-cultural aspects that he unearths and documents. I was left wanting to know much more about the ways in which people used the space prior to it’s demolition. I was left fascinated by the story of the pop-up subway arts festival which was held one weekend in an underpass under the complex in 2007, not to mention the bee garden, the urban explorers, and the stories of library and other council workers who were based in the complex.
These stories of people enjoying and repurposing this public space at the heart of the city (a space which, as the film rightly notes, is now essentially privatised and “enclosed” as a private realm) are truly an example of people exerting their “right to the city”. For this reason I was interested and pleased to see footage from a right to the streets demonstration in the second half of the 1990s which shut down the inner-ring road in the film. Birmingham has a strong, creative, but often submerged libertarian left streak, so it was great to see that Reclaim the Streets – a brilliant brief expression of people centered politics sandwiched between rave and the anti-WTO protests – were active here and could get hundreds of people mobilised. Again, I was left wanting to know much more about this story.
The final activist, collective, creative cultural expression explored by Howlett was the campaign to save the library itself. This - and the outpouring of a large quantity of keepsakes, memorabilia, or arguably devotional icons, bearing an image or representation of the Central Library’s ziggurat - was fascinating to see in of itself. The film itself is arguably an expression of the pro-brutalist, or concrete curious, subculture as well, and those with an inclination towards cultural studies should be fascinated to find out more about the significance of this subculture and what it more broadly signifies about society in the 2010s.
In the end, much like previous attempts to grasp hold of and successfully interpret Birmingham, Howlett’s film does not manage to reach any firm conclusions. The joy of a film like this though, is the journey that you go on whilst watching it. I certainly feel that I now see a part of the city that I know well from my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood in a different way, and feel far more appraised of how it came into existence, took on the form that I knew, and how it resonated and inspired people to create, explore and express themselves in all manner of ways. My main takeaway at the end of the film was a renewed conviction that the public realm, and weird, possibly slightly sad, but open-ended spaces in the city must be fought for, that we must defend and seek to expand “the right to the city”. This is because like brutalist, multi-purpose, civic buildings, they are increasingly endangered, and the joy of Birmingham’s fluid, scrappy, shape shifting essence will be damaged and fade if we lose many more of them.
This is an extract from Josh Allen's review - read the full review on Josh's website