Birmingham Update

by Ben Flatman


This article appeared in AREA, the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects West Widlands.







Birmingham has seen such dramatic changes over the past fifteen years that it is barely recognisable as the city once famed for concrete monstrosities and urban motorways. Residents and visitors alike have become accustomed to the sight of cranes hovering above the city centre and the noise of constant demolition and rebuilding. Recently however, the city seems to have experienced a slight slow-down in the pace of reconstruction. There are still plenty of schemes in the pipeline, but several of the big strategic projects seem to have ground to a halt. Eastside is progressing at a painfully slow pace, while the long-gestating Arena Central shows no signs of stirring. The question being asked around the country is, has Birmingham gone off the boil?

The most high profile and contentious of all the major hold ups has been the collapse of the Richard Rogers library proposal in Eastside. The new library had been driven forward by the previous Labour council administration, lead by Blair favourite, Sir Albert Bore. Having invited a number of leading practices to develop concepts for the library, the council then opted for the Labour-supporting peer and stalwart of the architectural community, Richard Rogers. Some felt the decision represented the righting of an historical wrong, after Rogers had narrowly and controversially missed out on the convention centre commission in the mid 1980s. Others saw the choice of such an establishment figure as uninspired and unadventurous. Whatever the rights or wrongs, Rogers pushed ahead with a detailed concept design that involved the close cooperation of senior staff at the library and council. The scheme that emerged was clearly pivotal to the emerging Eastside masterplan and had a close relationship with the neighbouring City Park Gate scheme that Rogers was also developing for Countryside Properties. At no stage, however, was any definite source of funding identified for the library. At an estimated cost of £180million, the then Conservative and Liberal opposition on the council had good reason to question the underlying feasibility of the project.

The writing was therefore already clearly on the wall for the Rogers scheme when in 2004, Labour’s eighteen year run in power finally came to an end and the current Conservative-Liberal coalition took control of the council. Roger’s office has insinuated that the decision to ditch the practice was politically motivated, but council cabinet member for regeneration, Ken Hardeman, insists that the move was down to financial realities: “There was speculation that it would come out at nearly double its original price at £350m.” Historically, major projects such as the NEC and the convention centre have survived changes in administration thanks to strong cross-party support, and council leader Mike Whitby has certainly not given up on the idea of a new library. In March of this year, councillors backed the leadership’s proposal to progress with a split-site option, with a new library on Centenary Square and a local history and archive centre in Eastside. David Adjaye, Glenn Howells and MAKE were all invited to develop visuals showing how the library might look next to Baskerville House and the Birmingham Rep. So far, these have yet to develop beyond very basic outline sketches.

Meanwhile, Rogers has pulled out of the City Park Gate project and dramatically announced that his practice will never work in the city again, while Building magazine recently implied that Rogers’ experience would discourage other leading architects from working in Birmingham. This is a view clearly at odds with Ken Shuttleworth’s experience, whose practice MAKE opened an office in the city last year and is currently working on the CUBE and the long-awaited new Digbeth Coach Station. At the same time MAKE has quietly picked up the reins on City Park Gate and have placed themselves in the running for the new Eastside park, the proposed city centre masterplan and as already mentioned, the new central library. Far from discouraging MAKE, recent events appear to have created new opportunities for the younger practice to flourish in Birmingham.

Is it possible then that recent upheavals may have some longer term benefits? While no one within the city will have been happy to see an architect of Rogers’ calibre so unceremoniously dumped from a prestige project, the decision to appoint him in the first place hardly represented the expression of faith in young architectural talent that has come to set apart the great European regional capitals. Rogers was a young and exciting prospect in the 1960s, but his appointment to the library project in 2003 was anything but bold. Outsiders looking in will quite rightly have questioned the city’s ability to commission the best up and coming talent. Birmingham has only sporadically achieved the highest levels of architectural design over the past decade and many critics have asked how a city that has seen so much change in this period has produced so little of lasting quality. If the current hiatus is therefore to have any lasting benefit, may be it is time for a wider reassessment of the city’s approach to commissioning new and exciting architecture. The council’s talk of a wide-ranging Birmingham masterplan does at least suggest that there may at last be a move towards a more coherent and design-led approach to development within the city centre.

The council might want to begin their reappraisal by taking an urgent look at the proposals for New Street Station. John McAslan and Partners’ recently released computer visuals suggest that the city may well be heading towards a redevelopment of staggering banality. Terry Grimley described the scheme as looking like ‘a bog-standard multiplex cinema’, to which McAslan responded by saying that he had better things to do than listen to the criticisms of ‘the arts correspondent of the Birmingham Post’. This response hardly breeds confidence in McAslan’s willingness or ability to raise his game in a city that has become accustomed to big names delivering projects that are well below their best. To avoid another Sealife Centre or Millenium Point, the council must take heed of critics such as Terry Grimley and demand a whole lot more.

Ben Flatman