One cannot but admire the courage of the people of Birmingham in creating their Civic Centre on a site which is by no means central and whose character is still a very long way from being civic. Seven years ago the Hall of Memory, with its attendant lawns and loggias, staked out their claims of formal architecture in a smoke-stained wilderness of flettons. A year or two later came the Masonic Temple, a somewhat adventurous interpretation of neo-grec. And now, next door to the Masonic Temple, stands the new Birmingham Municipal Bank, undoubtedly the ablest contribution to Birmingham architecture for many years. To the west of the bank is the site for the new Mansion House; so there is the possibility that the next decade will see a really fine range of buildings along this side of the square. Opposite is a grim collection of chimneys which will never be completely hidden, while on the east side a grotesque little hospital in Victorian Gothic perpetuates the misapplied enthusiasm of the dark century.
Mr Howitt’s design for the Birmingham Municipal Bank was successful in a competition promoted in 1930, Sir Reginald Blomfield being the assessor. The building was begun towards the end of 1932, when the first stone was laid by Mr Neville Chamberlain. It is a steel-framed structure, and the principal elevations are faced with Portland stone, rising from a base of grey Cornish granite.
The principal façade of the bank, composed on a Greek Ionic theme, is an immaculate piece of spacing. The play of vertical against horizontal, of void against solid, and the distribution of enrichments of different textural quality, are the things upon which success or failure depend in work of this kind; and here each of these equations has been very well worked out. The Ionic columns, it will be noticed, are of ample girth with a minimum of entasis, their proportions just enabling them to hold their own in the void between the two weighty masses of solid masonry. This is a small point, but it is precisely the neglect of such subtleties which accounts for the poverty of much classical work at the present time.
The bank is entered through bronze doors, and a corridor intervenes between the loggia and the banking hall. This corridor, as will be seen from the plan, provides circulation all round the hall, from which light is obtained through a series of bronze grilles.
The banking-hall itself is very simply treated. The walls are lined with biscuit-coloured Subiaco marble, highly polished, with a skirting of black Irish marble. The hall is top-lit through a coffered ceiling (fibrous plaster), the enrichments being picked out in pale colours. The same colours enliven the small heraldic roundels on the walls. Two inscriptions, in gilt lettering, emphasise, in subtle flattery of the bank’s customers, the benefits of saving and the blessedness of thrift. The floor is paved with Roman stone, with grey Zola edging, while the counters are panelled in the same materials and surmounted by a broad oversailing wooden counter. The slabs of marble which project a few inches from the walls, are designed to mask the ventilation openings.
The entrance-corridor leads, right and left, to octagonal lobbies and staircases. The floors of these lobbies are designed in Roman stone and Zola, with the addition of some rich brown walnut travertine. The staircases have bronze balustrades of plain crisscross design (a logical arrangement, avoiding the acute disharmonies of the more usual crossed diagonals) with a charming piece of enrichment at each landing.
The basement contains the safe deposit. This is a room about 50 ft square, in the middle of the building, and is believed to be the largest of its kind in the provinces; it is surrounded by safes of varying sizes covered on face and edges with a special aluminium anodised metal. Over four thousand safes have been installed, and there is plenty of room for more. The safe deposit is lighted by a continuous glazed metal frieze above the safes, and two bronze-framed columns. Part of the illuminated frieze tells us that “Prudent people seek a place wherein to lodge their securities.” Adjoining the safe deposit is a series of reference-rooms, where customers may inspect the contents of their safes. Strict privacy is guaranteed, and a red lamp burns outside each room while it is in use.
The first floor contains the accountancy department and the manager’s offices. On the second floor is a very large assembly hall, used also as the staff canteen; also on this floor is the committee-room, panelled, and furnished with a fine briarwood table. The top-lit luncheon-room and auditors’ room are behind the blind attic story, whose summit is discernible in a view of the exterior frontage.
Some of the lighting contrivances are worth noting. The banking hall is lit through the lay-lights in the coffered ceiling, a soft, steady light resulting which makes it unnecessary to have separate lamps on the desks. In the little widow-slits in the banking hall, green lights shine up from the cills, giving a pretty decorative effect. The loggia is illuminated at night from a strip of lighting concealed above the columns.
The general contractors were W J Whittall & Son Ltd., and the principal sub-contractors and suppliers included:
Moreland Haynes & Co Ltd (constructional steelwork);
Bath and Portland Stone Firms Ltd (Portland stone);
J Whitehead & Sons Ltd (marble work);
Caxton Floors Ltd (fireproof floors);
J Jeffreys & Co Ltd (heating and ventilation);
Crittall Manufacturing Co Ltd (metal sash windows);
Henry Hope & Sons Ltd (metal windows);
Aluminium Ltd (aluminium sills);
Baldwins Ltd (sanitary fittings);
Thos Glover (electrical work);
H H Martyn & Co Ltd (fibrous plaster work);
Allied Guilds Ltd (fibrous plaster work and decorating banking hall ceiling);
F de Jong & Co Ltd (fibrous plaster work);
Gilbert Seale & Son (fibrous plaster work);
Turk System Drying Co Ltd (drying work):
Pavino Flooring Co Ltd (floor tiling);
Simpson & Son Ltd, W B Simpson & Sons Ltd (wall tiling);
Harris & Sheldon Ltd (screens and panelling);
F Restall Ltd (banking hall counter and screens);
Waygood Otis Ltd (lifts and cork work);
Hollis Bros & Co Ltd (oak and teak block flooring);
Chatwood Safe Co Ltd (strongroom doors);
Birmingham Guild Ltd (bronze doors and grilles);
J Booth & Sons (fireproof door);
Parker, Winder & Achurch Ltd (ironmongery);
Chubb & Sons Lock & Safe Co Ltd (renters to safe deposit);
Val de Travers Asphalte Paving Co Ltd (asphalte work);
Empire Stone Co Ltd (grano’ pavings);
Fenning & Co Ltd (granite);
Pilkington Bros Ltd (lantern lights);
Haywards Ltd (“Copperlite” glazing);
A J Dix (leaded glazing);
J A King & Co Ltd (ferro-glass roof lights);
Holophane Ltd (“Ripple-Lite” fittings);
Best & Lloyd Ltd (electrical fittings);
Gent & Co Ltd (electric clocks);
British Vacuum Cleaner & Engineering Co (vacuum plant);
May Acoustics Ltd (sound, absorption to ceilings and friezes);
Birmingham Gas Dept (gas meters);
Kingfisher Ltd (metal chairs);
Roneo Ltd (steel furniture);
Sankey, Sheldon Ltd (steel furniture);
Lee, Longland & Co Ltd (wood furniture and carpets);
Benham & Sons Ltd (kitchen equipment);
D & G Gelling (linoleum);
Kean & Scott Ltd (curtains);
Dictograph Telephones Ltd (dictograph instruments);
Birmingham Guild Ltd (honours boards);