Aiming High

by Ben Flatman


This article appeared in Issue 10 of AREA, the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects West Widlands.







Tall buildings have often enjoyed something of a bad reputation in Britain and have rarely commanded much popular support. Those that have been built have tended to be blandly utilitarian, with little of the panache and sense of fun that characterises the world’s best-loved skyscrapers. In a city like Birmingham, with more than it’s fair share of council tower blocks and under-whelming commercial office slabs, it is easy to forget the positive effects that a tall building can have. Considering that one of the city’s most recognisable characteristics is the American-style cluster of tall-ish structures that define the city centre, it is also surprising that there are not more individual buildings of quality.

The exceptions that prove the rule are probably Alpha Tower and the Rotunda. Both buildings take clear pleasure in playing with the high-rise form and at least one has earned the reputation of being a city icon. Eschewing the drab rectilinearity of most of the city’s other tall buildings, Richard Seifert’s Alpha Tower assumes a tapering and aerodynamic form appropriate to a city whose motto is “Forward.” Its very shape exudes optimism and has a more contemporary look and feel than many things built in the thirty years since. The Rotunda is undoubtedly Birmingham’s best-loved tall building and one of its few genuine ‘landmarks’. It is currently due for a major facelift by Glenn Howells Architects, that will bring it closer to its architect’s original vision, but even when the people of Birmingham had long fallen out of love with the rest of the old Bull Ring, the Rotunda stood apart as a building of lasting quality. Like Alpha Tower, it captures the optimism and may be something of the brashness of the time at which it was built. Hardly subtle, it somehow survives - rather like Tom Jones - as a slightly kitsch relic from a bygone era. Most importantly, people like it.

Now, as Ian Simpson Architect’s new Beetham Tower at Holloway Circus nears completion, the city appears to be on the verge of welcoming another member to this exclusive high-rise club. Simpson’s tower is not only tall, slim and beautiful, it also promises to be immaculately clad. Unlike so many other modernist skyscrapers, which shy away from decoration and iconic status, Beetham Tower will have a distinctive abstract pattern on its façade and an eye-catching top. Project architect, Stuart Mills admits that making sure the top of the building was satisfactorily resolved was always part of the practice’s objective. And so, in the great tradition of slightly extraneous baubles on tall buildings, the final two floors of Beetham Tower will project out 1200mm from the rest of the building. The gesture may sound modest, but as the computer visualisations already show, the effect will be striking. This articulation of the summit, accentuated by a slight recess on the floor immediately below, is the kind of detail that will help enrich the city’s skyline and distinguish Simpson’s tower from the mediocrity around it.  

This concept of adding to and improving what is already there is one with which Birmingham Design Policy Manager, Martin Brown, thoroughly agrees. For him, the city’s high-rise quality is a given. His concern is how to consolidate existing areas of high-rise density and accentuate Birmingham’s distinctive but over-looked topography. To this end, Brown has drawn-up a planning policy framework for tall buildings. The policy guide identifies the Birmingham ‘ridge’ as a key factor in determining the siting of new tall buildings. The ridge runs from Five Ways island all the way to Aston University and Brown has highlighted a number of existing clusters and gateway locations within this zone where new high-rise buildings would be appropriate. Far from being a developers’ charter, the framework helps establish a clear strategy for ensuring that all future tall buildings continue to benefit the skyline and the image of the city as a whole.

The next major high-rise project to appear in the city could be the long-awaited Arena Central tower, just off Broad Street. The original design by the global giant HOK Architects, was significantly higher than Simpson’s Beetham Tower, but this will probably be scaled back in any future proposals. Even were this to be the case, the Arena Central location still presents an excellent opportunity to further enhance the Birmingham skyline. For Martin Brown, one of the most important criteria for any revised scheme will be the quality of the design and the wider contribution that it makes. He admits that the design quality threshold for tall buildings is probably higher than normal, precisely because of their size and visibility.

The issue of tall buildings in British cities can still cause controversy today. Ever since the collapse of Ronan Point in the 1970s, there has been a certain amount of ambivalence towards high-rise living, but the past decade has seen the rehabilitation of many residential tower blocks. Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in west London was once considered an abject failure, but is now one of the most sought-after residential addresses in the capital. A similar transformation has been wrought on other high rise buildings across the country. The two council blocks that face Simpson’s Beetham Tower across Holloway Circus roundabout were recently refurbished and are now amongst the most popular council housing in the city. While many local authorities continue to demolish tower blocks, private developers are increasingly looking to high-rise as a popular and profitable solution to the huge demands for new and affordable housing.

Unlike some better preserved towns, Birmingham has no historic skyline to protect. It is a city with an established high-rise character, where good quality tall buildings provide the opportunity to improve upon what is already there. The challenge now is to creatively engage with what exists and make sure that all new tall buildings meet a high threshold in terms of their individual appearance and their wider contribution. With care and attention to detail, judicial use of tall buildings will hopefully not only contribute some striking new landmarks to the Birmingham skyline, but will also help in the creation of a landmark city.


Ben Flatman