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History Repeating

by Ben Flatman

 

This article appeared in Issue 7 of AREA, the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects West Widlands.

[autumn2003]
 

Birmingham has always been the most Americanised of British cities. Non-conformist, entrepreneurial and a magnet to immigrants, it sometimes looks and feels a little like a small slice of the US - England’s mid-west perhaps. From its love affair with the car, big roads and suburbia to its current infatuation with lap-dancing and conspicuous consumption, Birmingham is as much inspired by America as it is by Europe. Ever since Joseph Chamberlain there have been sporadic, increasingly ambitious attempts to change the physical and cultural face of the city, and to make its appearance commensurate with its economic power and influence. But like the plastic surgery of a Hollywood starlet, these facelifts often seem to betray the insecurities of a city never entirely at ease with itself. The problem for those who would ‘improve’ the city is that there is an element of Birmingham that will always resist attempts to ‘Europeanise’ its culture or ‘boulevardise’ its streets. As Ian Simpson pointed out to an audience of architects on the top floor of the Rotunda- “look around you - you’re in Birmingham not Barcelona!” For many, it is precisely Brum’s lack of polish and the brash way in which it moves forever ‘Forward’ that make it special. For while the regular reinventions are all too often hurried and badly planned, they also reflect the character of a rumbustious city that refuses to lie down, roll over or give up.


 
The newly rebuilt and re-branded ‘Bullring’ marks the latest chapter in Birmingham’s fascinating experiment in mid-Atlantic urbanism. Driven by a private sector developer that understands the underlying desires of the average Brummy better than do many of their politicians and planners, Bullring is really a huge American-style out of town shopping mall, crudely stitched into the centre of Birmingham. This should come as no surprise, as it was Birmingham that imported the indoor shopping mall from the US to Europe in the first place. Although billed as a new heart for the city, with ‘world-class’ architecture and public spaces to match, Bullring fails to really achieve these objectives. Apart from along the one primary route from the High Street to the foot of St Martin’s, ways into the megastructure are unwelcoming and badly defined. Approaching from Moor Street and New Street stations or the indoor markets, the looming bulk of the building is oppressive and cliff-like, and uncannily reminiscent of what preceded it.

Defenders of the Bullring argue that these criticisms are unfair and miss the point. Bullring restores a major urban route to Digbeth that was disastrously destroyed in the Sixties and also gives a shot in the arm to the city’s under-developed retail sector. These points are valid and worthy of celebrating, and yet for such a huge and expensive scheme, they come across as depressingly shortsighted and unambituous. In the early Nineties, Joe Holyoak put forward his own proposals for how this part of the city might be reinvented. Although architecturally modest, the scheme presented a flexible and sustainable vision of traditional, open-air streets, defining modestly sized urban blocks with a variety of distinct buildings and spaces. Most importantly, Holyoak’s scheme allowed for a gradual process of redevelopment and change. The single mega-building we have ended up with is monolithic and inflexible. As with the previous shopping centre, there is every possibility that the more illustrious stores will eventually move on to newer territory and there is little to suggest that the new Bullring will be any more successful in staving off the inevitable decline into bargain outlets and tat. This is how the American city works, where real estate development is intended to bring quick, short-term financial reward (in this case, for a group of London-based speculators) and not long-term urban renewal.

This view may be overly pessimistic. For all its generic shopping mall sterility, the new Bullring is a more pleasant environment than what preceded it. The completely glazed mall roofs help create an atmosphere more akin to a covered street than a conventional shopping mall and although the development fails to engage the streets around its peripherary, the main street and square are relatively lively. But, like Jon Jerde’s pioneering Universal City Walk in Los Angeles, Bullring is a simulacrum of a traditional high street, where glitzy facades conceal a nether world of non-architecture, service areas and desolate back-lots. One need only look at the dismal carpark alongside Selfridges to see how little thought has really been invested in the wider urban context. Belying the talk of new routes and new urbanism, Bullring is actually designed to keep people circulating and spending within the centre, not exploring outside it. These objectives are unfortunately at odds with the council’s alleged desire to open up the city.

So what about the architecture? Ever since the first steel-framed department stores started to appear in nineteenth-century Chicago, large-scale retail architecture has mainly been about vast open floorplans with all the ‘architecture’ invested in the facades. Many buildings have achieved a happy compromise along these lines, from Bon Marché in Paris to Peter Jones in Sloan Square. But while the Bullring delivers on the former, it comes up mostly lacking on the latter. This is of course with one notable exception. In the best tradition of department stores, Selfridges is a cavernous, glorious temple to consumption, where the facade functions as a giant signpost to the delights within. Future Systems and their collaborators have even managed to make the interior a cut above the average retail environment.

But Selfridges succeeds as more than just a huge advertisement or iconic blob. Over the last few years Digbeth-based APEC Architects have carried out an excellent and painstaking restoration of St. Martin’s in the Bull Ring, and the key architectural highlight of the entire redevelopment is the contrast between the old church and Selfridge’s glittering and curvaceous facade. Despite the odds being stacked against them, these two buildings have almost succeeded in striking up a lasting dialogue. Birmingham is short on such genuinely successful juxtapositions and this element of the new Bull Ring actually works rather well.

 

Ben Flatman

benflatman@hotmail.com

 
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