Rob is an avid traveller and self-professed 'man of the world'. He is passionate about his home city, Manchester, & travelling the world.
Shaking Off the 'Ugly' Tag
Birmingham City Centre has often been branded with the ugly tag. This is generally a reflection of the built environment in the city centre. The post-war planners went to town (excuse the pun) in Birmingham in the '60s and '70s.
At the time, modernist architecture was en vogue and architects and planners firmly bought into this vision of a futuristic new world where the car was king and where buildings were meant to make bold statements and symbolise a break from the past. Intricate details or decoration were no more; concrete was the material of choice; wide roads took up great swathes of prime city land; and pedestrians were moved to walkways in the sky and sheltered inward-facing precincts and tunnels.
By the turn of the 21st century, the decisions of these 20th-century visionaries had begun to strangle and suffocate Birmingham. The concrete facades of so many of these once-futuristic monoliths were now badly decaying both inside and out. The wide roads that had appeared spacious and allowed for free-moving traffic in the '60s were now choked up with traffic and badly polluting the city air, leading to higher rates of respiratory diseases among citizens. These roads had become physical and mental barriers, cutting off one part of the city from another.
The elevated walkways, shopping precincts and underpasses which had been designed to be oases for pedestrians now felt oppressive, intimidating and in need of serious investment. A new vision was needed for city: one that prioritised people over cars; high-quality public spaces over sprawling developments; spatial masterplanning and a more inclusive approach to design. And so the urban redevelopment of Birmingham began.
Finding Harmony Between Function and Form
Somewhat ironically, the last decade has seen a renewed appreciation for so-called modernist and brutalist architecture, and there are concerns in some quarters that Birmingham is being too hasty in tearing down its architectural past.
I sympathise with this view to a degree. Architectural fashions come and go just as they do with clothing, diets and music. A building that was unanimously celebrated as good design in 1960 could find itself universally derided in 2020—but is that a reason to pull it down? Who's to say it would be celebrated again decades down the line.
The city's planners, however, need to consider a place in the round. It's not just about the merits of a single building but more about how the buildings sit in and interact with the space around them. And the reality is that many of the modernist buildings of the '60s and '70s do a very poor job at this. The former Birmingham Central Library is a classic example of this.
The Library was a literal barrier between Chamberlain Square and Centenary Square. Pedestrians were forced to walk through a shopping precinct and bear the odours of a McDonald's and a Wetherspoons pub (with people smoking indoors no less—at least until 2007) in order to get from one side of the building to the other.
Chamberlain Square has been updated for the 20th century. This is where the modernist Central Library once stood. The new library has been built a hundred yards away at Centenary Square whilst new commercial office buildings have been built in its place.
The centrepiece of Centenary Square continues to the fountain as it was previously and the public space has been remodelled around it. This is a great spot for wandering around with the camera and for just taking in the city.
The biggest changes to Birmingham in recent years have been implemented at Centenary Square. This was always a fairly pleasant place and something of a cultural centre what with the Symphony Hall, the Repertory Theatre, the Central Library and the indoor arena tucked away at the back.
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In recent years a brand new modern library has been built and the architectural centrepiece of the square. The Symphony Hall has recently had a facelift and the square itself has been completely redesigned by international design studio Graeme Massie Architects and features a stunning water feature at the centre.
The space has been made even more pleasant for people—not just as a result of the attractive architecture—due to the removal of vehicular traffic from around much of the square. The West Midlands Metro now runs along the square and up through Broad Street, which was formerly choked with traffic.
The reimagined square is also framed by the new Arena Central quarter, a brownfield redevelopment site that will ultimately be home to several new office buildings as well as hotels, homes and public spaces. This is a commercially-led real estate redevelopment project that is bringing plenty of life back to this once neglected and underutilised part of the city. Several of the new buildings have been completed with the remaining plots expected to be filled in the next 3-4 years.
103 Colmore Row
Whilst Birmingham is not yet in the same league as Manchester or some of its European counterparts, in terms of tall buildings, Birmingham is certainly a city that is looking towards the heavens.
The tallest office tower in the city has recently been completed on a key site adjacent to the collection of core municipal buildings. 103 Colmore Row, designed by Doone Silver Architects for developer Sterling Property Ventures, is a commercial office block standing at just over 100 meters in height. It features 26 floors comprising office and leisure space, including a rooftop restaurant.
The tower stands on the site formerly occupied by the Natwest Tower, which was originally designed by local West Midlands architect John Madin and which was completed in 1975.
The focus on 'place' and not so much on individual buildings has helped to ensure that the design of new spaces takes account of both planned new buildings but also how those that are already there can be suitably integrated into the plans.
A good example of this is in the area around the Alpha Tower, a modernist tower completed in 1973. A development of 352 apartments across a series of buildings has recently been completed next to Alpha Tower. The result is a seamless public realm that embraces the existing Alpha Tower in a way that makes one think that it was designed at the same time as the new apartment buildings.
Another example of intregrating the love/hate modernist architecture of the '60s and '70s is at Broad Street. Here, modernist towers such as the Jury's Inn hotel now sit side by side with more modern, elegant towers like The Mercian—a 42-storey build to rent tower designed by locally-based architect Glenn Howells.
The Bullring Shopping Area
Another major regeneration success—although one that predates those mentioned above—is the redevelopment of the Bullring shopping area, completed in the early part of the 21st Century.
The shopping centre was 'externalised' in order to provide as much active frontage as possible. Uses were also diversified to provide a wider mix of activity and activation into the evening once the retail uses closed. Key landmarks at this development mix the old and the new. Of the old, there is the Church of St Martin which dates back to 1855. Of the 20th-century landmarks, the standout piece of architecture is the Rotunda.
The Rotunda is a cylindrical building rising to a height of 81 metres which was completed in 1965. By the turn of the 21st century, the tower was looking long past its best. Famed regeneration specialists Urban Splash, known for converting old warehouses into residential accommodation in Manchester and Liverpool, took on the tower in 2004, working with Glenn Howells Architects to refurbish and convert to residential use.
The modern 21st-century landmark is the Selfridges building. This was the statement building as part of the redevelopment of the Bullring. The building was designed by Future Systems and features 15,000 anodised metallic discs fixed to a blue background. This quickly became an iconic piece of architecture on the Birmingham landscape and the shape of things to come in terms of the future bold direction of the city.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Robert Clarke