For a city of its importance, Birmingham is terribly good at hiding in plain sight. A show of hands amongst a randomly selected group of people from SE England would probably show that most had been to Amsterdam or Barcelona, but how many would have spent time in Birmingham? It has an abundance of quality Victorian architecture, yet it is Glasgow or Belfast that come to mind when we think of Victorian cities. It was the ‘city of a thousand trades’ at the start of the Industrial Revolution, but we are likelier to think of Manchester or Sheffield when we think of the coming of the factory age. Even in terms of pop music, having given us Duran Duran, Dexys Midnight Runners, ELO and Denim, Birmingham somehow lags behind Liverpool and Manchester as a pilgrimage point for music fans. Holidaymakers go for the Lake District, York, Bath or Oxford, and Brum keeps a low profile. We all know that it is the second largest city in the UK, and that it has more canals than Venice, but do we know Birmingham?
I once saw a quote somewhere by one of Austria’s post-war chancellors that “Austria has retired from world history, and is very happy about that”. Austria is not a particularly large country, but its erstwhile empire was very large and Vienna was a cultural metropolis and mixing-pot on the scale of London or Paris, and it has the buildings to match. The empire was finished by the age of the Manhattan skyscraper, but the buildings Vienna does have reflect the neo-classical ideology of Empire; everyone wanted to steal the clothes Greece/Rome, but as German-speakers the Viennese were also inheritors of the Gothic. The architecture, particularly around the lavish Ringstrasse that replaced the old city walls, is like a five-year-old unleashed on a pick ‘n’ mix with an unlimited budget. The familiar Hapsburg look of Herculean caryatids and green domes of oxidised copper is turned up to 11 in their capital; they were building a city for giants, on a heroic scale that seems almost comical to our eyes. But this city built for titans is now the capital to a small-to-middling country, and compared to our pressure-cooker global cities it has a paradoxically unpretentious, slightly soporific appeal that I find very appealing. It no longer asks to dominate world affairs; it is happy to rest on its laurels, and so it should be.