Taking Wing (Elmdon Air Terminal, Birmingham, UK)

I suppose if you wanted to level any criticism at the architecture of some early air terminals, it is that they could – possibly – be mistaken for other things. Croydon‘s looks a bit like a grand town hall, Shoreham and Speke are in the Streamline Moderne idiom and could (control towers aside) pass for one of the many factories built in the same style. No such charge can be levelled against this week’s transport beauty, which has enlivened the built environment of south-east Birmingham for nearly 80 years. There can be no doubt at all that Elmdon Air Terminal was built to serve the needs of the nascent civil aviation sector. If you want to see want the excitement of flight distilled into built form, then look no further.

Elmdon Air Terminal (aka The Elmdon Building) in 2014. Photo by Ozzy Delaney [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It opened in 1939, one of a rash of air terminals which were completed during the late 1930s. It was designed by architect Nigel Norman and engineer Graham Dawbarn. At the land side, arriving passengers were presented with a startlingly austere, squared-off facade comprising two cuboid elements, a three storey one at the bottom with a smaller single storey above, set back slightly. The emphasis is very much on the skyward at Elmdon, with tall and narrow windows and two stepped pillars/pilasters/pylons (I’m not really sure what to call them) which run up the front of the building and break the roofline of the lower section. Between them are the main entrance doors on the ground floor and the de-rigeur Art Deco clock at the top.

Not that passengers would have been paying much notice. They would instead have been distracted by the terminal’s most distinctive features, a huge pair of wing-shaped canopies on either side, 15 metres deep and cantilevered out from the third storey of the building, with skylights letting light down underneath. The entire building looked like it was desperate to take to the skies itself, and it absolutely reeked of the Streamline Moderne glamour of early civil aviation. The wings were designed to allow passengers to access waiting aircraft, which would have been visible on arrival at the building. In this way, Elmdon surpassed even Speke and Shoreham for presenting arriving air travellers with the excitement of seeing their waiting aircraft.

At the airside end, the terminal sported a Streamline Moderne-style semi-circular end with a matching control tower right at the top.

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There were two open balconies serving the second and third floors. These gave panoramic views over Elmdon Airport, newly opened along with the terminal and replacing Castle Bromwich as Birmingham’s airport. Flights were provided to destinations including several airports with terminals featured earlier on this blog: Croydon, Liverpool (Speke) and Shoreham. Flying was very glamorous back then. With spectacular bad timing, Elmdon’s opening in 1939 took place just in time for the whole place to be requisitioned for the duration of the Second World War.

Once the war was over and civil aviation resumed, Elmdon Air Terminal served as a stylish passenger handling facility for Birmingham. The RAF also left behind two hard-surfaced runways as a replacement for the grass runway in place when Elmdon Air Terminal opened for business. With international traffic increasing, an extension to the terminal (the imaginatively titled “International Building”) was built in 1961. Unfortunately, it looked awful and was horribly insensitive as an extension. As you can see from this picture on Birmingham Airport’s Twitter feed, the International Building looked like a badly designed 1960s school and was shoved up against the original terminal:

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The indignity of this extension even included the walling in of the space underneath one of the original terminal’s beautiful cantilevered wings (great flooring though):

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At some point, the balconies on the air side of the original terminal were glazed, and the control tower replaced with a more angular structure, so it lost some its good looks at that end too.

Depending on your point of view, 1984 was the best or worst thing to happen to Elmdon Air Terminal. What was by now called Birmingham Airport opened a new and much larger terminal building on the other side of the airport site, essentially taking over Elmdon Air Terminal’s role. The attractive older terminal was no longer needed by Birmingham Airport’s passengers. On the plus side, this meant that the International Building was eventually demolished, leaving Elmdon Air Terminal as it was originally intended to be seen.

Today, largely in original external condition, it is called The Elmdon Building and is the Midlands home of Signature Flight Support, a company which provides ground handling and support services to private jet owners and operators. It’s not therefore, as easily accessible as some of other early terminals which continue to have public access, whether that remains aviation-related or because they have been converted to new uses. The result is that this fabulous building is one of the less well-known 1930s air terminal survivors. It’s not listed by Historic England, although it is featured on Historic England’s website.

The Elmdon Building in 2015. Photo by Ozzy Delaney [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Birmingham Airport has one other significant transport claim to fame. It was the site of the world’s first commercial Maglev ‘rail’-way. Maglevs (short for Magnetic Levitation) aren’t really railways at all, using magnets to both float and propel trains. Maglevs are one of those futuristic-sounding ideas that seem as though they are always about to be the next big transport revolution, yet never quite are (q.v. monorails, ekranoplans, PRT and so on). High costs and lack of compatibility with extensive existing conventional railways have always hindered their widespread adoption, despite the promise of very high operating speeds. Indeed, the 18-mile long Pudong-Shanghai Pudong International Airport maglev has a maximum operating speed of a shade over 265mph, though a planned extension to Hangzhou was ruled out in favour of a conventional high-speed railway.

When the Birmingham Airport maglev opened in 1984, it was a slightly more sedate affair than the dreams of superfast land transport normally suggested by maglev technology. Linking Birmingham International railway station with the new terminal at Birmingham Airport, the Birmingham Airport maglev system was less than half-a-mile long, and its ‘trains’ had a top speed lower than that of a bus.

Birmingham Airport maglev, looking very Tomorrow’s World. By MaltaGC (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Although it was a useful technology demonstrator, and initially a very popular novelty, one always wondered whether an actual bus might not have been quicker and cheaper to provide. The maglev was taken out of service in 1995 as reliability deteriorated and spare parts became harder to find (watch out Shanghai, would be my advice). Its replacement, which came in 2003, was not a bus (again), but this time a cable hauled shuttle tram with a track built on the old Maglev track bed.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Pearman, Hugh (2004): Airports: A Century of Architecture. Laurence King Publishing, London

The history of Birmingham Airport, at the airport’s official website, here

Historic England’s Elmdon Air Terminal and Control Tower page, here

How to find Elmdon Air Terminal

It’s now called the Elmdon Building, and it can be found by clicking here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

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