The Town Hall in Victoria Square was the country's first truly civic building. It was built as a place for the people, an elaborate music venue – England's first great concert hall.
Previously concerts were held in cathedrals or smaller concert venues seating less than 800 but the Town Hall changed all of that. Offering a podium for political speechmaking, public gatherings and music, the space was designed to be at the beating heart of the developing city, a building that matched the city's status as an industrial powerhouse.
In 1831 a design competition was published in the Times, which attracted 67 entries from architects across the country.
The winning design, by Joseph Hansom & Edward Welsh, was influenced chiefly by the Roman temple of Castor and Pollux, albeit scaled down by a quarter. It took over two years to construct, a period dogged with tragedy and misfortune. A monument to two stone-masons killed during its construction can still be found in St. Philip's graveyard.
The building finally opened in 1834 it opened to coincide with the Triennial Music Festival. The public was not left guessing when a small piece of the ancient Roman Empire appeared in Birmingham, it showed the city meant business.
Its Grade I listing is testament to the place it holds in the hearts of the people of Birmingham. It is a beloved piece architecture that is a symbol of the city. Its white Anglesey Marble exterior is a fixture of so many images of Birmingham.
The building has played host to the ever changing tides of history, from pop and rock performances by Black Sabbath, The Beatles, Slade and Lunasa, to sweeping orchestral premiers by Mendelssohn, Britten, Previn, Boult and Elgar.
Famous speeches have been made there by Dickens, Ramsay MacDonald and Margaret Thatcher. Although the interior hall will be well known to the public, there are plenty of hidden spaces within the building that are just out of view.
The centrepiece of the main hall is the magnificent 89 stop Georgian organ. Some of its largest pipes are taller than the average house. Stepping inside the mysterious machine reveals over 6,000 pipes of all different shapes and sizes, linked together with complex mechanical blowers and windchests.
Tucked in a corner behind the enormous pipe organ, a tiny door leads to a winding staircase, which twists its way towards the roof space of the building with walls adorned with redundant gas lamps from the early years of the building's use.
Although very much a service space, the roof is full of interesting nooks and crannies and it is rumoured that bands such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd took advantage of this fact, escaping the hustle and bustle backstage to the more sedate, primitive surroundings, with their groupies.
The roof itself is an impressive engineering feat. Giant oak trusses that would have been manually lifted into place with ropes and pulleys. Today, modern services are entwined within the historic wooden beams and a complex secondary structure supports the elaborate plasterwork below as well as modern lighting equipment. Cast iron gratings around the perimeter of the roof offer glimpses down to Chamberlain and Victoria squares below.
Many of the walls behind the scenes are inscribed with an array of graffiti from workers and visitors throughout the building's history. Graffiti dating from 1855 was discovered on the ground floor vaulting that was possibly left by the building's first decorators.
In the brick vaulted basement the original coal chutes can still be seen and vast voids that exist beneath the floor would have served as ventilation to the main hall.
Although the building has suffered periods of inactivity in the past, it finally closed in 1996 for much needed renovation. Extensive restoration works, costing £35m, were designed and overseen by architects Rodney Melville & Partners and Birmingham Design Services.
The works, which were delivered by Associated Architects and Wates Construction, finally brought the building back to the centre of civic life when the Town Hall reopened to the public in 2007.
Article by Matthew Goer, Director, Associated Architects
Published in the Birmingham Post, 23 December 2014