Tag Archives: Birmingham Library

Buildings of Birmingham. Breaking down the Concrete.

Firstly welcome to my new-look blog site. I decided it was time for a fresh image.

Last week I was invited to speak at an FBE/ FFT Breakfast event in Birmingham. My talk was on ‘The Art of Business Development’; I was asked to do it following a blog I posted back in February (click here to see it). I enjoyed the event last week and had some great feedback after it, which I really wasn’t expecting. Whilst there, I was asked if I had blogged about Birmingham. It occurred to me that the only Birmingham based blog I have done to date was on the new Library (click here to see it). So here are my thoughts on the modern Buildings of Birmingham…

I have to confess I have always struggled to like Birmingham. I can’t really put my finger on what it is, but the City doesn’t appeal to me as much as others (London, Nottingham, Manchester etc). Birmingham was heavily bombed in the second world war, meaning a lot of new development occurred in the 50’ and 60’s; a period defined by concrete structures, with roads dominating and forming very hard divides/ edges.

A few years ago I went to a drinks party at Marco Pierre White’s at the top of the Cube. The panoramic views of the city from the top are quite good. However, what this experience really demonstrated was how fragmented the city is; nice pockets, closely bounded by really run-down parts. This is a general theme of Birmingham in my view and perhaps this is why I don’t like it as much. The urban grain of the city doesn’t seem to flow.

On a more positive note, Birmingham does seem to have created a bit of a niche for creating bold, contemporary buildings, these help define its character. Most of these buildings challenge the norm of modern architecture. The story starts in the new millennium and here’s six contemporary buildings which are starting to change Birmingham’s concrete image.

In 2000, The Mailbox was opened; the site was formerly occupied by the Royal Mail Birmingham sorting office. The open-air luxury brand shopping mall has hotels and offices above, as well as the BBC Midlands HQ; a genuine mixed-use development. However whenever I’ve been over the years, the red-fronted mall lacks life and feels more like a ‘route through’, than a ‘destination’.

Birmingham Mailbox

2003 saw the Bullring redevelopment, which included the new £60m Selfridges building; a morphic like, largely windowless building, decorated with domed silver discs. It was certainly bold in its time, and seems to have aged reasonably well. Also the Grade II listed Rotunda building was reinvented by Urban Splash, converting it from offices to Residential.

Selfridges Bullring

In the same year No. 10 Holloway Circus became the City’s latest (and tallest) building. Designed and built by the same teams as Manchester’s Beetham tower, it takes on a similar aesthetic of predominately glass, with vertical ‘tiger stripes’. However this building is very one-sided and seems to get a little lost in the skyline; it certainly doesn’t provide a focal point like Manchester’s version.

No 10 Holloway Circus

The Cube was built more recently, opening in 2010. The 25-storey building is a substantial block, albeit a portion of it is hollow in the centre. The metallic ‘Tetris’ looking cladding doesn’t appeal to me, but again it’s certainly a noticeable building.

The Cube Birmingham

The Library building, by contrast to the others in my view, is a huge success. A truly great example of contemporary architecture; both in its look and use. I think we will see more of these multi-layer buildings emerge in the future.


The latest building(s) to emerge in the City is the New Street Station redevelopment (or Gateway Plus), incorporating the old Pallasades Shopping centre, with a new-build John Lewis department store as well. It seems to take cues from the other Birmingham buildings I’ve mentioned here, with curves, glass and stainless steel cladding forming the look. It’s still in construction, but I’m not convinced yet from what I’ve seen to date.

Birmingham New Street Station

Manchester remains my ‘second City’ of the UK and a real favourite in terms of architecture and a city. It has also reinvented itself incredibly well from its heavy industrial revolution period.

I do applaud Birmingham for recognising the importance of architecture in defining the City. Perhaps the post-war legacy issues of Birmingham are so substantial that it will take many years to re-connect the urban fabric into a cohesive experience. Continuing to break down the depressing 50’s and 60’s concrete will redefine Birmingham’s image.

High quality individual buildings are really important for Cities, but so too are the bits between them.


RIBA Stirling Awards 2013. The Shortlist

I have recently watched the BBC News documentary on the RIBA Stirling prize shortlist for 2013. Its worth a watch – and can be found on BBC iPlayer.

“The UK’s most important architecture award is not merely a beauty pageant; the judges look for original, imaginative and well executed designs, which excellently meet the needs of their users. The shortlisted and winning buildings reveal the pinnacle of current architectural talent – buildings that on all fronts and in every detail inspire those who use and meet them.” RIBA Stirling Awards Website

This years shortlist consists of the following;

1. Astley Castle. A modern intervention to form a holiday home within a medieval castle/ scheduled ancient monument. The dilapidated ruin, of which the UK has many, faced an uncertain future, but the innovative idea of creating a ‘new chapter’ for this structure is an interesting concept. However a building which presumably was open to the public has now taken on a more private use – is this the right thing to do with a building of such historic importance?

2. Bishop King Edward Chapel
. The brief was to create a contemplative and prayerful environment. The chosen design was conceived as elliptical boat-like structure within the Oxfordshire countryside. The architecture is simple, modern, bright and light. An uplifting interior has been formed which certainly provides the ‘wow’ factor according to its users. I think this is a sensitive and positive interpretation on creating a modern place of worship, which is always a difficult thing to achieve I believe.

Bishops king edward chapel
3. Giants Causeway Visitors Centre.
Certainly a building which blends into its environment. It only really has two part-elevations as the structure is submersed into the ground. However the visible external elements are clad in Basalt rock (to match its context). Internally it is very efficient in its energy usage via various sustainable systems employed. The interior is rather organic in its planning, “there is no set route through the building”; its open to user interpretation. Clearly a very public building, and a well recieved one it would seem at that.

Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre
4. Newhall Be
. A new concept in greenfield high density living. Or is it? These black timber-clad boxes promote big windows and open plan internal/ external spaces for the modern needs of housing. However, this scheme is just one part of an extensive ‘new thinking’ residential development in Harlow, Essex. Around ten years ago I visited the recently built Proctor Matthews development called Abode. This was one of the first phases on this site at Newhall. In my opinion the Abode scheme is far more successful than Newhall Be as a modern interpretation of ‘the housing estate’.

newhall be
5. Park Hill
. A huge project on the top of a hill in central Sheffield. An iconic concept of ‘new living and streets in the skies’, when first built in the late 1950’s, It’s design was inspired by Le Corbsier, but it suffered social decline and dilapidation over the years. Urban Splash have delivered a very positive conversion of the scheme to create high density living which enjoys two-storey dwellings, with large open-plan living and big window views out. Commercial uses have also been introduced at ground floor. I have seen this project emerge over recent years and have the utmost respect for Tom and Jonny in their work. You have to admire this project, if only for its sheer scale!

Park Hill
6. University of Limerick Medical School. The second Irish project in the mix. This is good design, delivered to a budget. Exposed materials internally create spaces which are flexible, but perhaps appear too basic? A new academic building is the main event, whilst three residential blocks (student living) surround it. I think this image sells it best, but otherwise it doesn’t seem to stand out?

Uni Limerick Medical SchoolSo my vote? Park Hill by Urban Splash.

The winner will be announced on Thursday this week at a ceremony which wont be televised for some reason? The judges this year are;

Sheila O’Donnell – architect, O’Donnell + Tuomey
Paul Williams – architect, Stanton Williams and winner of the 2012 RIBA Stirling Prize
Stephen Hodder – architect and RIBA President
Dame Vivien Duffield – philanthropist and Chair of the Clore Duffield Foundation
Tom Dykchoff – journalist and broadcaster

Common Themes from this years shortlist are;

  • Modesty, Harmony, Make do and mend.
  • Exposed materials internally dominate (concrete/ stone/ brick/ blockwork etc.)
  • Natural Light features highly in all buildings through large windows/ openings.

Do these six buildings represent the ‘cream of 2013’, I’m not so sure personally. I think there are others which should perhaps be in there.

In the BBC programme, David Sillito concludes his documentary by asking the following questions of the buildings;

Does it work?
Does it lift the spirit or corrode the soul?

I think these points are valid. In a world where “austere” has become somewhat of the norm over recent years, the challenges facing architects are ever-increasing. ‘Signature designs’ are perhaps becoming a minority. A much stronger focus on form/ function and user experience are without doubt the most important factors in achieving the best quality contemporary architecture.

So whats ahead? I think we are seeing an emergence of what I’d call ‘layered’ buildings. These are buildings which have a highly insulated functional envelope, but are then over-clad in a further layer of decorative external facade, this offers aesthetic and functional benefits. An example would be Mecanoo’s new Birmingham Library.