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Art within architecture: John Piper’s mosaic in Birmingham Chamber of Commerce

November 1, 2015
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John Piper’s Mosaic in the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce (1959-60)

Although best known for his paintings, the artist John Piper created murals and mosaics too, including one I saw in the foyer of John Madin’s Birmingham Chamber of Commerce (1959-60). It’s made from gloss-fired tiles in vivid greens, yellows and oranges on a dark background. Although seemingly an abstract work, the Birmingham Pesvner guide by Andy Foster speculates that it might be an “urban landscape”, perhaps, with tall towers”. Lynn Pearson’s pioneering post-war UK murals database notes that it “may be moved to the Barber Institute”, the art gallery of the University of Birmingham. This surely relates to news that the Chamber of Commerce may be demolished to make way for redevelopment.

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John Madin’s Birmingham Chamber of Commerce (1959-60)

If the Chamber of Commerce is demolished, it will follow the sad fate of other Madin works, including the Birmingham Post and Mail building and most probably the former Birmingham Central Library. The latter was supposed to be demolished earlier this year, but at the time of writing (November 2015) there seems to be a hiatus and campaigners are resurrecting a petition to save it (even as the demolition crews destroy yet another Madin building, at 103 Colmore Row).

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Stuart Whipps, Detroit Public Library 006 (2011), Medium format slide (courtesy of the artist)

Many of Madin’s works can no longer be enjoyed in built form, but photographer Stuart Whipps ‘Why contribute to the spread of ugliness’ exhibition at the Ikon Gallery (2012) documented Madin’s buildings and archive. He even retraced Madin’s research visit to America, made when the architect was designing Birmingham Central Library. In a neat piece of visual symmetry, an image by Whipps of Detroits Public Library comes complete with a Dragon Tree (Dracaena marginata), a plant also seen in front of Piper’s mosaic. I hope the mosaic survives; it certainly deserves to be better known.

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From → Architecture, Art

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