by Ben Flatman
|This article originally appeared in Issue 6 of AREA, the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects West Widlands.
Since the renaissance of Birmingham city centre began over a decade ago, many commentators have observed that the resurgent heart is not always reflected in the state of the City’s suburbs. The recently completed restorations and new visitor centre at Blakesley Hall in Yardley may only go a small way to redressing this imbalance, but they do so in exemplary style.
Built in around 1590 by local farmer and businessman, Richard Smalbroke, the hall itself is a fine example of the local timber-framed vernacular and one of only a handful of such surviving structures within the City. In recognition of its significance, the house was bought by a local group and entrusted to the City as a museum in the 1930s. Since then various, not always sympathetic alterations have been carried out, but the main fabric of the building has survived in excellent condition. The hall has long been a focus of local interest and pride but by the mid-Nineties, the museum staff felt that Blakesley was failing to meet its full potential. Without adequate facilities for school parties, refreshments or disabled visitors and not even an office for the curator, it fell short both as a visitor attraction and as a community amenity.
Museum curator Christina Williamson and her deputy, Irene De Boo, wanted to upgrade facilities for education and the disabled and provide a much needed community exhibition space for the area. In 1995 they made their first, failed bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, which raised concerns about the scale of the proposals in relation to the cramped site. This initial rebuff led to a radical and still more ambitious proposal, culminating in the museum purchasing adjacent land that effectively doubled its area. Under the direction of a small steering panel, a shortlist of architects were invited to submit proposals, on the basis of their combined expertise in restoration and design. With a stated intention to commission a modern but sympathetic building, the panel decided upon Bristol-based architect, Niall Philips. In November 1998, a second, successful bid was made for core funding. To initiate a dialogue, Philips took the panel on a series of visits to other new buildings in the region, and used the trips to gauge exactly what it was that his clients liked or disliked. Working on a schematic brief drawn up by the museum staff, he then produced a dozen diagrammatic concept designs. Through a process of discussion and elimination the project took on the shape of an L-shaped building at the rear of the site, with new landscaping linking the visitor centre to the hall and education block.
The museum is now approached through a new gateway, west of the hall, along Blakesley Road. Cars and pedestrians pass down a short driveway to the rear of the visitor centre, where the red brick external wall of the gallery develops a gentle curve to draw them under a canopy and from there into the entrance rotunda. An overhead lantern sheds light onto the reception desk and museum shop. Directly ahead, visitors catch a glimpse of the glazed timber cloister that entices them into the garden and forms the backbone of the new development. From this light-filled corridor, visitors gain access to the community gallery and new tearoom. Both rooms have pitched, pine-clad ceilings but where the gallery relies mainly on artificial light, the tearoom enjoys glazed walls and a patio door onto a wooden deck, complete with cedar brise-soleil. Doors at either end of the Lshaped cloister lead directly into the garden, where Caroline Smart of Eden Design has used varieties of seventeenth century herbs and shrubs and the existing trees to create a landscape that is an attraction in its own right.
The exterior of the new building is dominated by a handsomely constructed brick wall. Although partly a response to security concerns, the wall also provides a pleasant sense of seclusion and enclosure and continues beyond the building itself to complete two sides of the garden. Either side of the entrance rotunda the two wings of the building are capped by tiled roofs, each pitched at the same angle as the hall itself. From inside the garden, the visitor centre takes on an entirely different character, with brick and tile giving way to cedar and glass. The glazed cloister predominates and links interior and exterior to create an intimate whole. Against the backdrop of its respectful but distinguished new neighbour, the restored old house sits serenely in what must now be one of Birmingham’s best designed public gardens.
Underlying the entire scheme is the conviction that if the museum is to be a success, it must tap into local interests and priorities. In one corner of the site the converted stable block provides an education room and small lecture theatre, often used by local groups in the evenings. While the museum is only open to the public from May through October, school visits are welcomed throughout the year and are already booked out up to twelve months ahead. Undeniably, the reinvigorated Blakesley Hall is eliciting pride and enthusiasm from local residents. Visitor comments refer time and again to their gratitude at finally seeing a cultural and financial investment being made in the Yardley area. Entrance figures have roughly doubled since the reopening in 2002 and visitors now tend to linger longer, enjoying a cup of tea or simply inhabiting a bench for an hour or two. Driven largely by the museums own staff, seventyfive per cent funded by the National Lottery and with financial and political support from Birmingham City Council, Blakesley Hall is a textbook example of an enlightened client getting the best from a talented architect. In the Curator’s own words, “this is a new museum”. The Blakesley Hall project is now seen as an example of best practice within the City and a blueprint for future developments within Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, such as the proposed renovation of Aston Hall. Using a traditional contract and working to achieve a strong community-oriented concept, the museums team have succeeded in showing how a relatively small investment of just over two million pounds can reinvent a much-loved landmark and help foster local pride and enjoyment.
Architect: Niall Philips Architects
Client: Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
Thanks to Irene De Boo.