Keep the Ziggurat
Birmingham is Britain’s second city in a statistical sense – its largest local authority with a population of over a million. But it doesn’t feel like Britain’s second city. How can it compare to the shock of Glasgow’s scale, grandeur and architectural invention or to Manchester’s style and pizzazz? It looks tame against the thrilling townscape drama of Edinburgh or Newcastle and dull compared to the magnificence of the mercantile heritage of Liverpool or Bristol. But although Birmingham’s city centre initially appears small and unexceptional it is a very big city nevertheless with an even larger conurbation sprawling out over the watershed of middle England into bucolic Borsetshire and gritty Staffordshire. However one town merges into another with few topographical or distinguishing architectural features. Its exoskeleton is the prominent and mostly elevated motorways since Brum is the centre of England’s motorway system, and indeed of its rail network, but paradoxically this makes it more travelled through than to. Birmingham remains inscrutable to outsiders.
Mk 4 Birmingham - City of London outsourcing (Snow Hill Queensway)
I first went there for an interview at Birmingham University. The city was frenetic and confusing, then tearing itself apart for the Mark Three version of itself. I liked the University but they didn’t offer me a place which as my first choice, LSE, had accepted me without an interview I took as an insult. How different my life would have been if my UCCA offers had been the other way around.
Mk 2 - civic gospel (Margaret St)
Mk 3 - forward (Birmingham Ballroom)
Mk3 - backward (Charles St Queensway)
The Mk3 version of the city quickly lost the gloss of its vulgar new modernity. Certainly it seemed to lack presence, with most of the disadvantages but none of the glamour of the industrial north. Birmingham’s image was irredeemably naff, like Noddy Holder’s ‘Merry Christmas’, Crossroads and that ridiculous advert jingle – ‘at the Bull Ring shopping centre there’s a smile on every face; from the moment that you enter you know it’s a friendly place’ (So why did they tear it down then?). This was then still the workaday ‘City of a thousand trades’ with its own inward looking self confidence and self reliance, but that did not save it from catastrophic industrial decline in the 80s; it was the worst hit of all the manufacturing heartlands. The story of the last 20 plus years has been about Birmingham struggling to reinvent itself – to make a Mk4 city and, as we shall see with the current ‘Big City Plan’, a Mk4 on steroids.
Mk1: The Great...
Mk1 industrial Birmingham developed quite differently from the big northern cities - Asa Briggs in Victorian Cities describes its myriad small businesses, the many workshop entrepreneurs, the relatively skilled workforce and social mobility. Although capable of grand civic statements like the Town Hall, a symbolic Roman temple of 1835, Birmingham was more typically described as a ‘great village’. However in the later C19th under its charismatic mayor Joseph Chamberlain the city came to symbolise municipal enterprise and improvement such as Lord Heseltine would like to reinvent today. Birmingham had the vision, the confidence and the ability to shape its own destiny rather than rely on Westminster and in 1890 it was considered ‘the best governed city in the world’; its greatest asset the municipal civil service. The achievements of municipal enterprise in the late C19th and the first half of the C20th – municipal gas, electricity, water, sewerage, tramways, hospitals, schools, libraries, colleges, parks, art galleries, fine civic buildings, grand new streets and of course Council housing - are extraordinary and especially when considered at a time when the present leader of Birmingham City Council says that Coalition cuts mean the end of local government as we know it.
Corporation St: a love story in 6 parts: #1 The beginning
One of the grandest expressions of civic enterprise in Birmingham was the construction of Corporation Street. Begun in the 1870s and conceived of as a Parisian boulevard it radically altered the whole topography of central Birmingham. Its rationale sounds very contemporary: the city was considered to be ‘under shopped’ and lacking in dignity, but the new street was never quite a Parisian boulevard - its architecture is highly eclectic and lacked Haussmann’s ruthlessness. Corporation Street is now difficult to appreciate as an entity because it has been truncated by Mk3 Birmingham. The section north of New Street shows the fine conception with a host of good buildings with exciting rooflines of gables and turrets, some in warm stone, others in the characteristically Birmingham harsh terracotta. However we are quickly into postwar rebuilding, the former C&A store exhibiting residually elegant moderne whilst the huge House of Fraser store designed by T.P. Bennett 1957 is a rather fine monolith. But opposite is the totally trashy Martineau Galleries of 1999 – Birmingham, what the hell were you thinking of? Fortunately the second phase of this cancerous development has been shelved by the recession but it still threatens the Corporation Square shopping precinct of 1963 by Frederick Gibberd which has an admirable clarity of design and plan and would be even better without gimmicky additions circa 1990. The former Lewis’s store of 1924 opposite is huge and classical, certainly the architecture of imperial pretension and of a Big City.
#5 The pinnacle
#6 Vintage years
Beyond Old Square Chamberlain’s boulevard reappears with a fabulous flourish. The Victoria Law Courts designed by Aston Webb and Ingress Bell in 1886 are absolutely stunning, the sumptuous detail made possible by the lavish terracotta. Opposite, the Methodist Central Hall of 1900 by Ewen and Harper is also faced with lavish terracotta and, as Andy Foster notes in his Pevsner guide, its strong defined composition and verticality is the perfect complement to the informal composition of the Courts. The ensemble of grand buildings in this area is one of the glories of Birmingham but it is out of the mainstream with a neglected and slightly bohemian feel, not surprising as this is now a dead end. The northern part of Corporation Street has been subsumed into the Aston Expressway – that terrifying free for all between Spaghetti Junction and the switchback of Manzoni’s inner ring road. The subway which takes you under the expressway to Aston University looks horribly uninviting but actually Lancaster Circus is an exciting place – a green space with the drama of a beautifully sculpted curving overpass running through it, the roar of traffic overhead. This could be a great urban space if animated with the sort of uses and designs by young architects which Olly Wainwright recently showcased on the Culture Show, but at the moment it is probably pretty scary after dusk.
The end of Corporation St - sigh
Ok Manzoni, that's actually impressive (Lancaster Circus)
Lancaster Circus shows at its best the powerful, masculine, muscular character of Manzoni’s Mk3 road building trip. He was the City Engineer from 1935 – 1963 and in charge of all municipal works from road building to housing. An engineer, not an architect or a planner, he had little time for either; this explains quite a lot. It is easy to see him as the direct heir to Joseph Chamberlain and his confident gospel of civic enterprise. Certainly the basis of the post war rebuilding of Birmingham city centre was laid in a 1918 plan by the City Architect, with a foreword by Neville Chamberlain.
If Coventry made Birmingham
How the rest of the inner ring road should have looked
The war gave the opportunity to reimagine the city centre. Manzoni drew up the inner ring road plan in 1943 but this was not a comprehensive rebuilding plan for a blitzed city, like Gibson’s Coventry plan. It was an inversion of that - a road plan that the city was to remake itself around. This misplaced confidence in the benefit of infrastructure investment per se still underlies Birmingham’s planning today. Post war austerity delayed construction until 1957 and it was completed in 1971. The earliest section, Smallbrook Queensway, is by far the best. It was conceived as a boulevard not a motorway and is on a grand scale with arcaded shops. The careful massing of the blocks, the subtle curve of the street and the deeply modelled facades with super trough uplighters make this an underappreciated masterclass in urban design. Ironically it was planning dogma as translated by ‘Traffic in Towns’ which dictated the disastrous vehicle and pedestrian segregation along the later sections of the ring road where 8 lanes of traffic writhes through under and over passes and swirls around circuses with pedestrians lost in labyrinthine subways. Only Glasgow can rival Brum’s motoring hubris.
Go Kart Mozart - the concrete collar
Disillusionment with Colin Buchanan’s urban nostrums was quickly followed by Mrs Thatcher’s slaughter of the manufacturing sector and Birmingham realized it had to reinvent itself as a service economy. The city core within Manzoni’s ring road is very constrained and densely built up, a physical and psychological barrier to expansion, a ‘concrete collar’. Birmingham, first to embrace a ‘Traffic in Towns’ future, became the first to decide to dismantle parts of its ring road to allow the city centre to expand, although this has proved much harder in practice than in concept.
I AM IRONMAN (sorry, had to say it)
The early planning for diversification of the economy included the ambitious Convention Centre and Symphony Hall beyond Paradise Circus. This is architecturally disappointing, particularly externally and the American style mall street is really the opposite of what Birmingham needed – the reinvention of urban structure. However there is no doubt of the economic and cultural success of the project. The city core is linked to the convention quarter by an ill conceived, confused pedestrian route, a ghost of Buchanan’s segregationist vision. This starts at Victoria Square, an almost accidental space between the Town Hall, Council House and the end of New Street which was somewhat floridly overdesigned as a pedestrian space replete with grand flight of steps, fountains, ‘the Floozie in the Jacuzzi’ and a Gormley iron man.
John Madin's Birmingham library - internationally important
Up the steps you find the smaller Chamberlain Square with, on the one side, the magnificent Art Gallery proudly located above the Gas Department in the Council House and on the other the stunning Central Library, designed by John Madin in 1964. Andy Foster calls it ‘the finest example of the Brutalist aesthetic in Birmingham and a civic project of European importance ….. typical of Birmingham in being entrusted to a local architect’. The massive inverted ziggurat of the reference library contrasts with the lighter curving wing of the lending library; it is a real tour de force. The space within the inverted ziggurat, which is quite small, has tremendous power but in 1989 it was enclosed with a glass roof to form an arcade route to the convention quarter. It was also filled with ‘retail offer’ tat currently including a Wetherspoon’s and Eat 4 Less. Other alterations have also undermined the integrity of the building’s design. This degradation is sadly only a prelude to total demolition which the Council has pursued with a boneheaded philistinism recalling Macmillan and the Euston Arch.
After the revolution this will be rebuilt (bar the advertsing hoarding)
The motives for this vandalism are instructive. The library, only 40 years old and generally regarded as a model, is apparently ‘not fit for purpose’. Yeah, right. The site needs to be redeveloped to provide a new vibrant, mixed use street network bridging the ring road to Centenary Square. But what is wrong with reconnecting Paradise Street direct to Centenary Square? The real reason is stylistic fashion, or a rather sad conformity; the Prince of Hearts probably sealed the fate of the library when with typically bloodless incomprehension he likened it to ‘a place where books are incinerated, not kept’.
An impressive Hall of Memory for a city which keeps forgetting
Centenary Square is a huge plaza which would be at home in North Korea except for the OTT red brick paving which tries to give coherence but actually emphasizes formlessness. Around the space are various monumental buildings. The most exciting is the Alpha tower from Richard Siefert, 1969, reminiscent of Centre Point. It is dramatic, elegantly tapered and cranked at the centre; a fine piece of townscape although sadly isolated by the ring road system. Next to this the municipal savings bank and opposite grand council offices, both good Portland stone classical by Howitt (of Nottingham’s Council House). At the far end of the plaza a black glass Hyatt Regency which the late Larry Hagman would have felt at home in and opposite the unprepossessing entrance to the Convention Centre.
Interesting buildings but the public space is tawdry
Still behind wraps is Mecanoo’s new library; it will be the biggest library in Britain, Europe, possibly the galaxy. The scale and massing work well against the vast plaza although the relationship with the underwhelming Rep Theatre next door is not very well resolved. A sunken amphitheatre will project into the plaza, an interesting concept. The interior spaces under the curving rotunda could be good. The main design motif is the filigree façade of overlapping aluminium rings which will cover the library from the first to the eighth floor. The architect says these were inspired by the gasometers, tunnels, canals and viaducts which fuelled the city’s industrial growth. Hmmm.
Through the Convention Centre mall and beyond the rejuvenated canalside is Brindleyplace, something of an urban exemplar illustrating a more reflective period of Birmingham planning when size was not quite so important as it seems to be now. The Tibbatts, Colbourne, Karski, Williams study in 1990 looked at the urban structure and morphology of Brum and provided the basis of much more studied approach to urbanism. Brindleyplace was an early example, a mixed use predominantly office scheme around a square laid out in 1995. The blocks are big and various from cool Stanton Williams modernism to Porphyrios’s flat vaguely Byzantine classicism. The place is not exactly vibrant although Piers Gough’s café does its best. Overall it is an impressive achievement. Nearby is the splendid Ikon Gallery, a Ruskinian Gothic board school neatly restored and converted in 1997.
Cube - made with Adobe Illustrator's vacuous building tool
Broad Street running from Centenary Square to the cluster of office towers at Fiveways is a louche, eclectic mixture of building styles but tending towards the 60s and a penchant for vertical drinking. Lots to explore but particularly interesting is the 16 storey slab between Gas Street and Berkley Street designed by John Madin, 1965, with very expressive textured abstract reliefs. Next to this Jury’s Inn limit the damage by converting a Seiferian-like tower. Down Berkley Street is the nice CBSO HQ with a retained façade of 1921, but you are likely to be gasping ‘oh my God’ as it is Make’s Cube which dominates the prospect. This is a typically glitzy show-off building with one side of the cube a gigantic open fretwork at upper levels. Marco Pierre White is somewhere inside the pokey atrium but not, it seems, many punters.
Hate to admit it but the Mailbox has balls
The Cube gives on to a canal which charts the progress of regeneration styles from timid to contextual to braggart. Beyond the lively basin is the Mailbox, an extraordinary development which displays a quite opposite ethic to the Cube. This was a gargantuan postal sorting office built in 1970. It was converted to upmarket retail (Harvey Nicks et al), hotels and flats in 2000, an extraordinary act of commercial imagination given its location, isolated by the inner ring road at Suffolk Street. From this street the building has tremendous presence, almost like an Italian palazzo as Andy Foster says. A narrow internal arcade was cut through the structure, open to the skies, the shops on three levels which adds drama, supporting piers with dark metal framing and terracotta panels. It is quite something especially at dusk. You are guided on the far from inviting route to New Street under the ring road and along Navigation Street by coloured baubles and street art, some by Thomas Heatherwick, but the really exciting thing you see is the New Street Signal Box, a wonderful abstract Brutalist composition in massively corrugated rough concrete.
Charming - Birmingham Marylebone
Obsessed with its Selfridges
The sunken church is weird; Bull Ring view re-emerges
The biggest challenge in the Mk4 reshaping of the city centre was the Bull Ring, a hopelessly confusing failed prototype for indoor shopping which was also part of the megastructure of the ring road. It is to Birmingham’s great credit that it had the vision and tenacity to make the redevelopment happen despite the myopia of the property market and the need to take out a whole section of the inner ring road – a huge conceptual leap and an example to other cities like Nottingham. The new Bull Ring with its iconic Selfridges by Future Systems has transformed Birmingham’s retail ranking, now third in the country. A key urban design requirement of the redevelopment was to make a new open street between New Street and St Martin’s, with Digbeth beyond. This is an important achievement; the view is quite spectacular and makes you realize what a hilly place Brum is, often hidden by the dense massing of tall buildings and the complex levels of Manzoni’s rebuilding. St Martin’s looks diminutive at the bottom. However the new street is almost too steep needing steps in places, an awkward arrangement dictated by an unnecessary tunnel for buses between the severed sections of the ring road. The pedestrian street has to rise up from New Street before descending and the street levels also have to defer to 3 levels of internal mall, one of which goes under the new street which is quite disorientating. Internally the malls are utterly standard anonymous. However the floors of Selfridges, each fitted out by different architects, are interesting as is the extraordinary elevation in long views at least. From the street the long blank facades are overpowering and inhuman, but at least honest in turning its back on the street – form following function. There was a nice café by the St Martin’s amphitheatre by Marks Barfield, apparently already demolished to make space for more Chapman Taylor. Other architecture is standard Benoy and all very dull. The Debenhams facing Smallbrook Queensway has the same depressing dumb drum at its entrance that you find in most retail parks.
Pedestrians battle with highway engineering
Hesitating over Brum's second city status
A really big problem however is the relationship of some of Birmingham’s Big City projects, the Bull Ring, New Street station and the future HS2 terminal to each other. Your view from the exit of New Street station is disastrous – the open maw of the bus tunnel and service areas, a narrow passage of steps leading you up to the Bull Ring upper plaza. If anything it is worse from the other side. Moor Street station (Birmingham’s Marylebone) now looks out at the intestines of the Bull Ring and the backside of the Selfridges where the AR’s assessment of it as ‘blue blancmange with chicken pox …. scaleless, uninviting’ sounds generous. This is where HS2 passengers will arrive in Birmingham. The Big City Plan promises that ‘a high quality pedestrian route will provide an attractive an convenient connection, but is short on how. A bit of a lash up.
The Indoor Market - socially a very good thing anyway
Looking up to the arts at the Custard Factory
The huge markets have been relocated in unpretentious sheds at St Martin’s and are teeming with life, a good barometer of Birmingham’s multiculturalism. Beyond, the newly revealed Digbeth is an interesting organic place with occasional traces of its market town past. The (Bird’s) Custard Factory conversion by Glenn Howells is a slightly flashy but apparently successful artistic colony amongst the factories and magnificent artefacts of the GWR viaducts. This area give a real flavor of the industrial Brummagen of small workshops. An amazing find amongst this is the Arts and Crafts primitivist St Basil’s church on Heath Mill Lane. Back up Fazeley Street are interesting examples of Birmingham’s history at the centre of Britain’s canal network including a warehouse as late as 1935. New Canal Street leads to Curzon Street where the frontage of Hardwick’s counterpart to Euston – Curzon Street Station of 1838 – survives in a wasteland pregnant with ambition.
Lurching from one badly planned railway boom to another
If Mies van der Rohe was a Park Keeper
This is Eastside, a vast post-industrialscape with only a few artefacts for memories; derelict pubs, roads that no longer make sense. It is what you see from the train as you approach New Street. In the middle distance an immensely long steel and glass shed with terracotta sun screens that is Millennium Point, sort of designed by Nicholas Grimshaw. Between that and Curzon Street a linear City Park designed by the excellent Patel Taylor is nearly complete. It provides a new structure for the area and a coherent link to the city core at Moor Street; ambition to be applauded. The wasteland between the park and the railway is earmarked for a new HS2 station. Birmingham is a main cheerleader for this expensive boys’ toy – the central idea seems to be to make Brum as convenient as Croydon for City outsourcing.
Better than Grimshaw - Jennens Lane Car Park
What's the Millennium Point?
You can’t fault Birmingham for ambition but fulfillment can be very disappointing as Millennium Point demonstrates. This is a strange hybrid designed around lottery funding criteria and in the process failing to express or celebrate its uneasy components, the Think Tank (the Science and Industry Museum which includes good stuff in a dismal setting), an IMAX cinema and accommodation for City University. It is Birmingham’s equivalent of the Dome. Can I be more damning? Well yes, just try accessing its gloomy atrium from Jennens Lane on the Aston University side. The multi storey car park is more interesting. Jennens Lane is the spine road for an academic quarter including Aston University, City University and other colleges. It is all unremittingly and pitifully awful. It makes Cardiff Bay looks, well better. How is it possible for a high ranking university like Aston to commission such shit? I despair.
Stupid - Aston University
Taking down the concrete collar to build this...
...but things are getting better for pedestrians (Masshouse Circus)
Birmingham has put huge effort and resources into reshaping Eastside, most spectacularly dismantling the huge ring road megastructure at Masshouse Circus. Rebuilding is maybe half completed; every building wants to be 20 storeys high, as cheap as possible and to hide this by brash assertiveness or attempted anonymity. There is no relationship to the street, no streetscape, no street life. Vast open car parks await a similar fate.
Birmingham is currently rebooting its 1990 city centre strategy with a new BIG CITY masterplan. This appears to envisage the next 20 years as a heady continuation of Urban Renaissance boom times. The scale of the ambition is heroic. The city centre floorspace will be expanded by 25%. If you look on the plans the areas slated for redevelopment are vast, not only Eastside but the ‘Southern Gateway’ (Digbeth and Smallbrook), ‘Westside’ (Central Library and Paradise Circus), Snow Hill and New Street station.
Digbeth High St - the ghost of legibility
Redevelopment is already underway at New Street station. This is of course the worst advertisement for Birmingham and for the 1960s, so unfathomable that I have never managed to exit it where I hoped I was going to. Its rebuilding to a concept by Foreign Office Architects is to be welcomed and only in Birmingham would the Council have the balls to make it happen by buying up the wretched Pallisades shopping centre on top. The plan is good given the immense constraints of the site; the concourse will be 3 times larger with glazed dome introducing daylight, a masterstroke. However I’m not convinced by the swirl of silver external cladding; didn’t work at Newport. Images of the new John Lewis sitting alongside the station are also unsettling – is not one vast free form department store that doesn’t relate to anything and particularly the street enough for Birmingham?
A Big City Plan which needs to focus on its detail
The Big City Plan, like so many plans, says many of the right things - about place quality, cultural and economic diversity, connectivity etc. However this is all Big Picture stuff; it is not translated into any convincing expression of how this will create successful streets, social spaces and urban quarters. The plans are just broad brush diagrams and pious intentions. But, as can be seen in Eastside and elsewhere, fine words and good intentions do not deliver what is hoped for and promised. As Jonathan Meades (quite a fan of the city) comments, Birmingham is ‘all vigour and no finesse …. low on aesthetics, high on energy’.
Another piss up by Urban Splash
Birmingham’s obsession with big projects, its Big City bluster, must surely be rooted in an inferiority complex. Yet the city has lots to be proud of from all stages of its development. Strangely for a place with such a tradition of enterprise its planning often seems heavy handed, over prescriptive, even ruthless making for simplistic urbanism and limiting the potential for innovation and organic developments. The city has not come to terms with its past, and again like Glasgow does not seem to appreciate its own great achievements. Birmingham’s insouciance about its post war architecture is very much in the Manzoni tradition. He is quoted as saying ‘there is little of real worth in (Birmingham’s) architecture. Its replacement should be an improvement as long as we keep a few monuments as museum pieces.’ For Brum the post war icon is the Rotunda, the 24 storey tower which survived redevelopment of the Bull Ring but was dumbed down by Urban Splash. The rest is expendable. So one of the great periods of the city’s history is air brushed out. The extraordinary contribution of John Madin is discounted, demolished; the Central Library soon following in the footsteps of the Post and Mail and Chamber of Commerce buildings. Like Glasgow and Greek Thompson.
Grand old Old Snow Hill
The Jewellery Quarter: proof that Brum does urban renewal
Yet there is much to discover and admire; like its two cathedrals, St Phillip’s, an C18th church of national importance and Pugin’s St Chad’s at Snow Hill. The remnants of old Snow Hill are wonderful, like Farringdon, and in the capital would be highly prized. The Jewellery Quarter deserves its national reputation. The commercial streets around Colmore Row are very fine; classical plus gorgeous Arts and Crafts, lots of inter war buildings of quality too and of course Madin’s National Westminster with its stunning metal doors – empty but standing. Across the city centre there is so much good architecture but the streetscape is often fractured. The Big City Plan approach of massive redevelopment is a sledgehammer to crack this nut. The city actually needs more appreciation, understanding, reuse and repair rather than wholesale demolition and start again. That way lies mediocrity, but Birmingham can become a mature city if it wants to.
Birmingham: you can not go forward without learning from the past
Andy Foster’s Pevsner Architectural Guide to Birmingham (2005) is your indispensable guide to the often hidden riches of the city and I have drawn on it heavily in this blog.
Owen Hatherley’s analysis and critique of Birmingham and its recent developments in ‘A New Kind of Bleak’ (2012, Verso) are both very insightful and extremely funny.
Asa Briggs’s history of Birmingham’s great period of civic enterprise in Victorian Cities, published in the 1960s, is worth going to the library for.