Will Alsop and The Public

by Ben Flatman


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







West Bromwich is not the sort of place that is accustomed to getting noticed. Aside from the local football team’s sporadic forays into the Premiership, West Brom is more generally associated with the endless sprawl of the West Midlands conurbation and its almost relentlessly bleak urban vistas. But any recent visitor to West Bromwich can hardly have failed to notice the gigantic hulk of a building emerging on the edge of the town centre. The Public, a new £40million arts and conference complex, is set to open in 2006 but is already helping to change perceptions of the area. It represents the latest evolution of Jubilee Arts, a small community arts group established in the 1970s under the dynamic leadership of Sylvia King. From its humble origins in a travelling minibus, The Public has emerged as a major cultural body, employing around ninety people and increasingly acting as an incubator for new creative industries in the region. By the mid-1990s Jubilee Arts had outgrown their existing premises and decided to appoint Will Alsop to design a purpose-built arts centre. Alsop’s practice has been working with Jubilee Arts and the local community to develop the new complex ever since and the results look set to bring a much needed injection of vitality to a rundown town.

Alsop is accustomed to being set tough challenges. In recent years he has been responsible for re-branding Barnsley as a ‘Tuscan hill town’ and bringing vibrant new buildings and ideas to such unlikely locations as Peckham and Walsall. It is no surprise then that when Jubilee Arts felt West Bromwich needed a bit of an urban makeover, they turned to Alsop. As has been demonstrated in Barnsley and Walsall, his practice offers not only architecture, but the kind of publicity that money cannot buy. His enthusiasm and provocatively bizarre ideas provoke anger and delight, but never fail to get people interested. The Public is intended to do precisely this for West Bromwich. The new building will house several galleries, bars and restaurants and also offer cheap start-up units for small businesses. The intention is that the centre will act as a social and commercial hub in an area where such facilities are in short supply. And almost as importantly, The Public is guaranteed to get the town noticed.

Generating interest and investment in the wider Sandwell area is also the task facing Ros Kerslake, Chief Executive of RegenCo, the new regeneration body for West Bromwich and Smethwick. Kerslake is determined that unlike many previous attempts at regeneration in the region, RegenCo should aspire to the highest architectural standards. She hopes to use the momentum created by The Public to drive forward RegenCo’s own agenda of quality and sustainability. She also hopes that it will raise the architectural ambitions of everyone living and working in the area. Kerslake is a strong believer that limited resources do not have to equal poor design. “I would rather have no development than a poor development” she asserts, adding, “we are most definitely not settling for mediocre architecture”. But with a shrinking population and local house prices at just 61% of the national average, there are few illusions about the scale of the task ahead.

RegenCo has identified ten initial sites as the focus for its work, stretching either side of Junction One of the M5 and roughly following the route of the Midland Metro. The agency hopes to reinvent Sandwell as a prime location for new businesses and as an attractive place to live and work. Rejuvenating the local retail scene will also be a top priority. Since the opening of Merry Hill in 1984 West Bromwich has fallen from 110th to 207th in the retail rankings and now the local shops also have to compete with the new Bullring. Chris White, RegenCo’s deputy chief executive believes that trying to compete directly with Merry Hill and Birmingham would be pointless and instead emphasises the importance of cultivating West Bromwich’s individuality. Although a massive new Tesco is planned, White is also keen to promote the local independent retailers and play on the multicultural and family appeal of the town centre. Following the example of Brindleyplace, it is hoped that much better use can be made of the local canals as a setting for both offices and homes and there are also plans for a new Sandwell Academy.

The rhetoric is impressive but RegenCo, like most public bodies, would clearly benefit from some professional design guidance. Despite Kerslake’s insistence that design quality will play an integral part in RegenCo’s work, there is so far little indication of how this will be achieved. There are no architects or other design professionals on the RegenCo board and the agency’s first wave of publicity is illustrated with the type of banal ‘artists impressions’ associated with the worst sort of property developer. Piers Gough is currently helping to draw up design guidelines for a new ‘urban village’ in Smethwick, but the developers will be under no obligation to appoint CZWG as actual architect on the project. In the absence of a developer such as Urban Splash or Argent, it is difficult to see where the desired passion for good design is going to come from. Some kind of design champion seems to be needed and Kerslake acknowledges there is a gap to be filled. RegenCo has had informal consultations with both Will Alsop and Marco Goldschmied and is considering establishing a panel of architects to provide on-going advice. However, the experience of past projects suggests that unless a strong and coherent design strategy is there at the start, the knock-on effects are then seen throughout the later phases of development. Ros Kerslake seems conscious enough of these risks to ensure that such mistakes are not made in Sandwell, but it will soon be insufficient for RegenCo to simply point to Sylvia King and Will Alsop’s achievement with The Public as evidence of what can be done.

Ben Flatman