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The Irish Quarter

by Ben Flatman

 

This article on the Irish Quarter in Birmingham was commissioned by Birmingham City Council for inclusion in the catalogue to accompany the exhibition Creating the Irish Quarter at MADE in July 2006.

[feb2006]

 

 

 

 

 

The Irish Quarter lies at the heart of historic Birmingham and occupies a hugely important place in the collective memory of the city. The original mediaeval settlement began in Digbeth and there is still a remnant, in the form of the Old Crown, of what one sixteenth century visitor once described as ‘a pretty street as ever I entered’. Few would now describe Digbeth High Street as pretty, but the area is still full of good nineteenth and early twentieth century commercial buildings and has a grid-like street plan that makes for a coherent and robust urban environment. In many ways, the relative neglect of the Irish Quarter has been its saviour. Had it been redeveloped along the same lines as the nearby markets quarter then nothing would remain. Unlike most other parts of the city centre the Irish Quarter has never faced wholesale demolition and clearance, meaning that enough survives to ensure that the essential character of the area has been preserved. Digbeth is already home to the pioneering Bond development and the hugely successful Custard Factory, both of which achieve something very rare in Birmingham – the creative reuse of existing industrial buildings. Projects like these demonstrate how, more than almost any other part of the city, the Irish Quarter has the potential to become a thriving and diverse inner city neighbourhood.

The Irish Quarter’s robust street plan and backdrop of solid industrial architecture also provide an enticing opportunity for architects to combine sympathetic refurbishment with bold new interventions. Kinetic AIU’s proposed Shoemakers development on Bradford Street and their evolving Warwick Bar masterplan are promising examples of how to rehabilitate old buildings while also bringing in good new contemporary additions. Too much of what has been built elsewhere in Birmingham over the past decade lacks an appreciation for the uniqueness of place or context that the Irish Quarter requires. Despite the very distinctive characteristics of areas such as the Jewellery Quarter and Digbeth, there have been very few projects that showed any sensitivity to these qualities. In contrast with much of the generic design found elsewhere, Kinetic AIU demonstrate a feel for the kind of radical contextualism that Birmingham so often lacks. Warwick Bar, with its strong mix of social and private housing and commercial and arts uses, is the most promising example yet of an enlightened developer understanding the commercial potential that exists in tapping into the area’s unique qualities and charm.

Elsewhere, Ken Shuttleworth’s MAKE Architects have taken a further distinct approach, with their proposals for a major facelift for Digbeth Coach Station. This project, which has been in the pipeline for nearly twenty years, now seems to be finally approaching realisation and MAKE’s scheme appears guaranteed to get the building noticed. Retaining the basic organisation of the existing coach station, the new building is aimed at improving facilities and providing a memorable new public face for the coach station. The computer renderings produced so far suggest it will certainly be a striking presence on the High Street, but to be totally successful the redevelopment will have to be accompanied by improvements to the High Street itself. Could it possibly be time to narrow the road and restore some of its mediaeval intimacy?

The regeneration of the Irish Quarter is an opportunity to show that the city has learnt from its past mistakes and is capable of raising its architectural game. To achieve this, it is vital that strong physical and conceptual links are re-established with the city core. There have been major recent improvements, primarily thanks to much greater permeability through the new Bullring and St. Martin’s Square. This has made Digbeth High Street accessible in a way that it has not been for nearly half a century and helped restore the historic parish church and markets to a more pivotal position within the city. To complete the rehabilitation of this pedestrian route though, more attention needs to be paid to the top end of Digbeth and Moat Lane. Improving the stalls and environment around the open air market would be a good place to start and in the longer term the huge wholesale markets will need to be addressed. Currently a major barrier to pedestrian movement, this area was once home to a collection of handsome Victorian market halls but was comprehensively flattened by the city council in the early 1970s. The wholesale markets today are completely cut off from the rest of the city and effectively represent a wall between the Bullring and the area south of Digbeth High Street. Glenn Howells Architects have developed a speculative project that explores the possibility of reintroducing the historic street plan to this site, including restoring Bromsgrove Street to its full length and creating a dense new area of six to seven storey buildings. Howells is keen to create a fabric of solid ‘background’ buildings that share a common approach to scale, materials and massing, thereby presenting a strong challenge to the prevailing tendency towards ‘landmarks’ and ‘icons’. His practice has already implemented this philosophy at Southside and has adopted a similar approach for a number of other nearby sites on Bromsgrove and Bradford Streets.  

Howells has been closely involved with the Irish Quarter for many years. His first major commission was the refurbishment of the Custard Factory, a project that still sets the standard for the imaginative reuse of older industrial buildings within the city. The wider transformation that the Custard Factory seemed to herald in the early 1990s has been slow to materialise, but the impetus behind the Irish Quarter now seems to be gaining a critical mass. The first large-scale commercial residential scheme is taking shape with McBains Cooper’s scheme for Concept on Bradford Street and nearby projects by Broadway Maylyan and Bryant Priest Newman promise to add further to the growth in the residential market. The last two years have also seen a number of arts organisations, including MADE, VIVID and the Ikon Gallery moving into the area. With a proposed film centre and art gallery at Warwick Bar, there are signs that the city may finally be close to realising its long standing ambition of seeing the Irish Quarter emerge as a focus for new media and the arts.

Success in the Irish Quarter will ultimately be measured by the extent to which regeneration enriches the economic and social mix of the area, while still preserving its distinct qualities. Residential development is clearly needed, but will have to be carefully balanced with the essentially commercial character of the Irish Quarter. Digbeth is still home to many light industrial workshops and warehouses, as well as a growing number of media and design enterprises. The long-term vitality of the area will depend upon the ability of new and existing industries to flourish alongside new apartments, shops and cultural venues. This will mean investors looking beyond the rich pickings of the socially exclusive buy-to-let market and thinking about the provision of small business and retail units, healthcare and possibly in the longer term, even new schools. The Irish Quarter has all the makings of a great success story. Birmingham’s challenge is to ensure that it has a happy ending.



Ben Flatman

benflatman@hotmail.com


   
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