It's all about surfaces now
It’s a few years since we explored Birmingham for Towns in Britain. More recently we have been concentrating on the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ for our forthcoming book Cities of the North, but lots is happening in the ‘Midland Engine’ too, or at least in Birmingham. Indeed the scale of change at times looks like a frenzy of self-harm, the City having lost its memory but still holding to its psyche of naïve optimism about the value of newness, thereby condemned to a perpetual cycle of destruction.
An impressive new space ...
... but not very welcoming
But we had come principally to look at the new New Street, which opened last year to mixed reviews. Nothing good could be said about the old New Street, so comparison with that sets the bar pretty damned low indeed. And certainly by that comparison the new New Street is massively better. True the platforms (where work is not yet completed) are as grim as ever, although improved circulation is promised. But once you have struggled up to the concourse, there is a certain wow factor. Wow, there is a lot of space! It is not completely heaving. I can almost see where I want to go. The exits, which previously you could never ever find, are now pretty obvious. But unfortunately you can’t get directly to where you want to go because the concourse is cut up by a series of pens, which are the waiting areas for the dingy platforms below. You have to find the ticket barriers to escape and then, rather than emerge directly into the grand concourse, you skirt around the periphery which is actually quite gloomy and grey, with wavy baffles half hiding the service ducts above.
Wow.... no, hold on a sec ...
... very flimsy
The new concourse if unobstructed would be the equivalent size of a football pitch and the scale of the dome too is impressive. Thirty metre arched trusses frame vast curving roof lights, creating something of the feel of an enormous spaceship from the War of the Worlds. But after a frisson of excitement disappointment sets in. The space does not have the sheer energy of a Calatrava or a Grimshaw on a good day. The finishes look cheap, with a tensile PVC fabric structure draped like a net curtain, dowdy and saggy in places. The original concept has been dumbed down and value engineering can be seen everywhere, especially in the jointing.
Grand Central – Bull Ring: the never-ending shopping centre
The other big problem for me is that the station has effectively become a shopping centre. Yes, I know it was buried beneath one before but this was meant to be a grand statement about the city and an exciting entry for visitors. But unfortunately the arrival experience is very secondary to the mall experience. So instead of the thrill of the grandeur of space in, say New York’s Grand Central or Milan’s Centrale you are offered a Westfield experience instead. The central space, as well as being divided by barriers, is cluttered up by a ginormous Pret a Manger. Why? All around you on two levels is a mind boggling array of eateries. This is the Grand Central shopping centre, which has effectively eaten the station. Tellingly the signage for the visitor points you to Grand Central – a marketing invention – not New Street station. There seems to be a (perhaps unconscious) design ethic which makes everything that is public and about the station very downbeat – the shy, inconspicuous ticket office makes this point very obviously – with the many shops and eateries dazzling and very loud in every sense.
This should be one big public space
The logo for Grand Central is (presumably) a stylized transit map of dots joined by lines but interestingly none of them connect. Of course New Street station is not alone in being taken over by shopping and eating – look at St Pancras or McAslan’s King’s Cross extension, both swamped with retailing – but at least Barlow’s shed and Cubitt’s austerity more than hold their own against this, as does Stanton Williams’ new King’s Cross square. Milan Centrale is now approached through a shopping arcade but even the vast Armani ads impertinently defiling the great staircases can’t compete with the grandeur of this station itself. New Street however does not counterbalance Grand Central.
Screens and mirrors – the age of the selfie
The new New Street is actually not so much new but a massive, and very cleverly conceived, reimagining of the old structures. The platforms haven’t changed and through the atrium you can see the 60s offices and multi storey car park. From the streets these have been hidden behind wrapping of over 5,000 glittering stainless steel panels. This creates a funfair distorting-mirrors effect. You see the sky and the activities of the streets and also the disjointed reflections of Virgin, London Midland or Cross Country trains – an apt metaphor for the fragmentation of our railways. The panels are very bright and dominating, but dynamic and fun. They express the glitzy character that Birmingham seems to aspire to. The video ‘eyes’ at the three main entrances however are horribly alien and assertive. Instead of providing train information, as in the artist’s impressions, they now show shitty advertising videos and occasionally welcome you to GRAND CENTRAL. New Street station doesn’t get a look in, which visitors might find bewildering.
New tramlines on Corporation Street towards the station
New Street station has always lacked a formal relationship to the principal city streets, being literally buried behind New Street itself. The revamp has little opportunity to change that. An attempt has been made to create a square between the station and the Bull Ring, but the abysmal quality of the buildings around it negates this effort. This underlines the problems of creating a half decent pedestrian connection between New Street and the planned HS2 station on the other side of the Bull Ring shopping centre. The approach from New Street itself takes you to the upper level of Grand Central and via a circuitous route to the platforms, although it is fairly easy to navigate. Outside the Midland Metro, Birmingham’s single tram line, is being extended to Stephenson Street. The new south entrance from Station Street is the most impressive approach, with a grand flight of steps up, surrounded by reflective panels with the sober drum of the new John Lewis building above. This is bolted onto the south of the Grand Central complex, very staid next to all the glitter – its form expressing the store’s ethos and clientele.
Birmingham is immensely proud of its new station and you can understand why. It has replaced an albatross around the city’s reputation with something much more impressive and which works immeasurably better. So it seems churlish to criticize, but really this is because of the poverty of aspiration that provincial England has been reduced to. Birmingham needed a much more ambitious railway station, not another shopping centre. It requires more platforms, and should accommodate HS2 integrated with the regional network, not a separate station half a mile away. And rather than a token tram on Stephenson Street, Birmingham needs a real Metro system – it is the largest city in Europe not to have one.
Of course in London vast rail projects are de rigueur: Euston, Old Oak Common, Thameslink, Crossrail, Crossrail 2. Elsewhere in Europe the deficiencies of the rail network in major cities have been comprehensively addressed, in Vienna, Stuttgart or Malmö for example. But not in Britain’s second largest city. It is not Birmingham’s fault – we need to look to the other end of HS2 for the culprits.
Texture and structure – New Street's signal box
Along Navigation Street, past the sublime Brutalist signal box – the best thing about New Street – is the Mailbox. This was a gargantuan postal sorting office, built in 1970 and converted in 2000 to upmarket retail (Harvey Nicks et al), Malmaison, offices and flats. This was 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 the Pevsner Architectural Guide says. A narrow internal arcade was cut through the structure leading to the Worcester and Birmingham Canal basin, with shops on three levels. Recently the Mailbox has been revamped by Stanton Williams in a cool, elegant understated way. The arcade, previously open to the skies, has been glazed in and a multi-functional ‘urban room’ created. This looks very inviting except for the threatening presence of security, although I managed to take one photograph without the normal ritual confrontation.
Mailbox has class interior but heavy security – so no pictures
The Mailbox in its confident restraint is very different from the assertive, blingy character of so many other Birmingham developments, like the Bull Ring, Grand Central and Make’s ridiculous Cube. It has an aloofness which gives additional poignancy to the juxtaposition of affluence and desperation you see in all city centres today. Outside Malmaison a mentally ill rough sleeper hurls abuse at her fellow dispossessed and passers-by in general, a shocking indictment of mental health care, social policy and housing policy in Tory Britain. I passed by on the other side of the road like a Pharisee, of course.
Alpha Tower – in the shadow of cranes
Along Suffolk Street and facing Centenary Square is another of Birmingham’s really class buildings – the Alpha Tower, designed by Richard Seifert and Partners in 1969-73 and recently listed. As English Heritage noted it is ‘one of the most aesthetically successful office buildings in Birmingham with a shaped outline and careful detailing giving it a dynamic forcefulness’.
Give it forty years – the Mecanoo library
Across the vast space that is Centenary Square is Mecanoo’s new library, the biggest in Europe. The scale is certainly enormous and it is brash. You can’t miss it, and that is the point in Birmingham. But its scale is handled carefully as a series of volumes, and the massing works well against the vast square and with the buildings to either side. The main design motif is the filigree façade of overlapping aluminum rings which cover the library from the first to the eighth floors. The architect says these were inspired by the gasometers, tunnels, canals and viaducts which fuelled the city’s industrial growth. I don’t buy that, but it works well as a delicate foil to the scale of the building.
The gardens and the sunken amphitheatre which project into the plaza also provide mediation between the brashness of the surroundings and the more reflective atmosphere of the library. The entrance itself is underwhelming and the foyer is filled with too much ephemeral tat, but beyond that you are soon in impressive volumes which continue to surprise as you rise up through the building. At times the experience almost tips into mall-dom but the central rotunda, recalling the British Museum Reading Room, or Asplund, is a masterstroke. It includes nice details like painted panels. The rotunda would be more impressive without the awkward travelator bridge, but the overall generosity of space astounds. The balcony and roof gardens are similarly generous gestures and appear to be very much enjoyed. It is great to see the way people use and appreciate the library as a public good, a civic enterprise in the grand Birmingham tradition.
A sad spectacle ...
Unfortunately, the destruction of John Madin’s ziggurat library is also very much in the Birmingham tradition. There is little more that can be said about this tragedy but it is still really upsetting to see the rubble. The hoardings around the site proclaim the new development to be ‘History in the Making’, presumably without intended irony. The illustrations of Glenn Howells’ scheme show restrained, somewhat over-scaled stripped-down neo-classicism, similar to his One St Peter’s Square in Manchester. Birmingham could do – has done – much worse, but it is fairly dull and clinical. Given the number of ‘icons’ in Birmingham screaming for attention maybe this is not such a bad thing.
... and again! The Nat West Tower.
What is undisputedly a bad thing, the destruction of Birmingham’s modernist heritage, does not stop with the sacrifice of Madin’s library to the Prince of Wales’ bloodless incomprehension of architectural quality. Up Colmore Row his National Westminster tower is being demolished. The Pevsner Architectural Guide says this is the most important Brutalist commercial building in the city ‘disastrous in its context but with its own tremendous integrity’. The next Madin masterpiece to be destroyed will be the Chamber of Commerce building, denied listing protection. Who cares in Birmingham? Well a lot of people as the spirited campaign to Save the Ziggurat showed, but not the City Council obsessed with the vacuities of the Big City Plan.
The Smallbrook Queensway next to go?
Imagine if the concrete was restored like Park Hill – could be tasty
Across town the much admired Smallbrook Queensway building, designed by the architect of the Rotunda, James Roberts, is also under threat. Developers want to part-demolish it for another tower with the remainder being completely buggered. As Joe Holyoak says ‘Roberts' Queensway building is a grand and elegant urban gesture. Its curvature, rhythm of vertical fins, together with its characteristic projecting concrete uplighters, make it still the most impressive piece of modern streetscape in the city, even 54 years after its completion. It is directly comparable with the work of John Nash’s … curving new boulevard of Regent Street. The architecture of the new proposal is typically bland and unexceptional, lacking the distinctiveness of the existing building.’ Given the Council's previous form it is difficult to be optimistic about the future of something special and distinctive to Birmingham.
Snow Hill (heading for Canary Wharf)
Still Motor City
Birmingham’s frenzy of rebuilding is of course not something imposed on the city but a deliberate strategy promoted, invited and actively supported by the Council often, as in the case of Paradise Circus, with large public subsidies. It is all set out in the ‘Big City Plan’. The latest masterplan is for the Snow Hill area. Although there are good things in this, about improving the public realm and public transport, the main engine of change is seen as massive redevelopment rather than any real attempt at place-making, character, distinctiveness, diversity and small scale interest. The model shows a lumpen new ‘gateway’ tower lowering over Pugin’s St Chad’s Cathedral. It all looks the same.
Heritage going to waste on Constitution Hill
The really bad news is that within the political world and the planning profession itself Birmingham’s market savvy regeneration-led planning is seen as a big success story. Brum has all this shiny stuff going up as other cities struggle to get any development underway given lack of public funds, market indifference, ignorance and arrogance.
Not keen on the jewellery bit but I do like the Quarter
After the banalities of so much new development in central Birmingham the Jewellery Quarter is refreshingly distinctive. I had previously not explored much of it other than the area around St Paul’s Square, but a surprising amount of industry survives here, often in Georgian and early Victorian premises. On Great Hampton Street there are some very grand commercial buildings but the street degenerates into an expressway leading to West Brom and Wolverhampton. Beneath the viaduct at Hockley Circus in an impressive pedestrian plaza you find a wonderful set of abstract murals in concrete by William Mitchell, who features large in the current (and not to be missed) exhibition of post war public art at Somerset House.
Somewhere underneath this is a modernist masterpiece ...
... impressive but in sad state. The William Mitchell murals at Hockley Circus.
This is a good place to contemplate the optimism and hubris of the post war era. When I was there the grand plaza was almost entirely unused except for one lone drinker. The subways are choked by litter like a snow-drift, graffiti everywhere. Obviously it is not an environment that is working as intended. The politicians, planners, architects and engineers got it wrong. They did not resolve the contradictions in what they were trying to achieve and, despite idealism and determination, their certainties did not result in the creation of a place people wanted.
Which is why Birmingham needs to give pause for thought now. Is a Big City Plan, with all its emphasis on scale, speed, boastfulness and commerciality, really what the city needs? And what will Birmingham be like as a place to live, work or visit in 50 years time? Only asking.