The end, at last, for Birmingham's concrete horror

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The Independent Online

Farewell the dank underpasses, the litter-strewn walkways and the grey, rain-stained concrete - the bane of a city that just couldn't be taken seriously. After 36 painful years, Birmingham today brings the curtain down on its Bull Ring shopping centre.

Farewell the dank underpasses, the litter-strewn walkways and the grey, rain-stained concrete - the bane of a city that just couldn't be taken seriously. After 36 painful years, Birmingham today brings the curtain down on its Bull Ring shopping centre.

The complex which, with Spaghetti Junction, became a byword for 1960s architectural brutalism, will close its doors with no fanfare at 6pm and prepare for demolition. It is to make way for the sweeping shapes of the New Bull Ring, which aims to attract the smartest names in retailing to Birmingham's east end by 2003.

The reincarnation will entice Debenhams back to the city and Selfridges will occupy a Martian spaceship-like building. "The Bull Ring has brought us down instead of making us the city we are," said a spokeswoman for the developers. "The successor breaks all kinds of new ground."

The city heard the last bit 36 years ago. The Bull Ring cost £8m, against the new development's £800m, but when it was opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in May 1964 it won more plaudits than its successor.

One of Britain's first US-style malls, the Bull Ring was "the most advanced shopping centre in the world", said developers; a rival to the West End of London. "For the average woman it will provide a real fillip - the kind of spree that, until now, only London can afford her," vaunted The Birmingham Post in 1964.

It was home to the Mecca banqueting suite, a new bus terminal and the biggest Woolworths in Europe. The Bull Ring's developers also boasted of fountains, tropical birds lent by Dudley Zoo, uniformed valets to park shoppers' cars and lifts "for the use of invalids and perambulators". But the place never took off. It became home to tawdry stores and turned into something of a retail ghost town. A concrete gloom had set in by the late Eighties, at which time the Prince of Wales castigated the complex and plans for a replacement were tabled.

The edifice was, says Joe Holyoak of the University of Central England's built environment faculty, born of the "start-from-scratch philosophy" of its day, "the belief that you could dispense with streets and urban blocks".

However, recreating the Bull Ring - which takes its name from the 12th-century marketplace that occupied the same site - has brought 10 years of even worse headache. The first reincarnation plan, tabled in 1988, comprised an out-of-town design imposed on the inner city. It spawned a resistance group, Birmingham for the People, which dubbed it "the aircraft carrier parked in the city". By the time more moderate proposals had been agreed, in 1993, the Bull Ring's owners had been hit by the slumping property market and only a change in ownership, in 1996, created the conditions for the New Bull Ring.

Though one of the most outright critics of the old place, Mr Holyoak now contributes to the faint murmur of regret that accompanies its consignment to rubble. "You can't help but admire the gung-ho approach of that generation," he said. "Every generation dismisses the work of the previous one; then a few decades later it comes out of the shade."

There are also anxieties about the new complex. The Selfridge spaceship has provoked dissent - the Post is not entirely in favour and it has prompted furious missives to the Architects Journal. The colonisation of more public space by 1.2 million sq ft of retail floor area and the movement of market stalls further away from the city centre have also raised eyebrows.

And then there's the Rotunda, a circular concrete 1964 office tower whose proposed demolition under the1988 plans caused a public outcry. English Heritage is now considering listing the building.

Birmingham's shoppers do not seem nostalgic, though. As he wandered through the centre yesterday, David Burke, 47, said: "It's about time it went. It's just a relic of the Sixties."

Ellen Read, 86, added: "I only remember they used to have entertainments on Saturdays. There was an escapologist trying to get out of a sack a few years ago."

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