If architecture were fiction, the Ikon Gallery would be one of its bestloved characters.
Here is a decorative Victorian redbrick school playing a pivotal role among a cast of chunky nouveaux brick-faced offices. Its ornate exterior conceals a steel frame capable of supporting massive floor loads and its mission is to exhibit cutting-edge art and provide the citizens of Birmingham with an enlightened fine arts education programme.
Three groups are behind the success of the gallery, one of the first projects to be granted National Lottery funding and winner of the Refurbishment category in last year's Brick Awards:
the City of Birmingham, the developer Argent and architect Levitt Bernstein.
Gradual decline The gallery was originally Oozells Street School, designed by Birmingham practice Martin & Chamberlain and built in 1877. In 1964, the tower was pronounced unsafe and had to be removed. By the early 1990s, when developer Argent began regenerating the 8ha plot surrounding the building as the new Brindleyplace, the school was derelict, protected from demolition only by its Grade II listing. Birmingham City Council insisted that Argent repair and secure the fabric of the school.
The refurbishment programme fell into two contracts, both under the direction of Levitt Bernstein. The first was purely for repair of the fabric, the second for conversion into new quarters for The Ikon Gallery.
Painstaking investigation The original brick was quite soft. It had absorbed the grime of its industrial setting for more than a century and was literally black in places. Project architect Paul Clark went round tapping each individual brick to discover which were 'blown' and which still sound. Engineering analysis established that brick strengths varied widely, a discovery that led to the decision to insert a steel frame inside the external brick shell.
Levitt Bernstein sourced more than 15,000 second-hand bricks for the project. The amount of repair and patching, adding and dismantling that had taken place through the school's history meant that the elevations were already a patchwork. The presence of white glazed bricks at the rear indicates that there had once been an inner courtyard; some of these bricks had to be replaced, a delicate operation because of the danger of chipping.
Ornamentation The Gothic elevations were heavily ornamented with string courses, elaborate coping details, arched openings with rope reveals, decorative basketweave or herringbone brick panels and, in the later extension, terracotta surrounds to doors and windows. Many of these specials had to be replaced and one entire front gable was rebuilt.
The new specials are most easily identified where the sills of the windows to the cafe were lowered to ground level. Martin & Chamberlain had used terracotta frames and lintels on openings in the later rear extension;
Levitt Bernstein copied this feature in its new openings. The new main entrance and the imposing internal doorway leading from the reception area to the glazed lift enclosure have terracotta reveals indistinguishable from their 1890s counterparts. But the terracotta voussoirs above the main entrance are novel, curved in plan and hung off the new interior structure.
About 42 different types of special were made for the project; the quantities required of each varied from ten to 550.
Gentle approach A key to achieving homogeneity, despite the wide range of brick colour present, lay in the specialist cleaning operation, directed by Nicola Ashurst of the Adriel Consultancy.
'Her way was to do it as gently as possible, ' says Paul Clark. 'She used a diluted spray and knew when to stop.
Areas of stone and brick are still dirty in places, but that's part of the building's history.'
The pointing also provides visual as well as literal bonding. Like the original pointing, it is a forgiving flush joint ideal for disguising small blemishes and marginal size differences;
it was also appropriate for use with the soft original brick, which lacked a sharp arris.
The tower Six months after the conversion contract was under way, a European grant made possible the reinstatement of the tower. Towers were regular features of Martin and Chamberlain schools as a means of improving classroom ventilation; the building had never looked right without its tower.
'Without it there was a dreadful stump, ' says Paul Clark.
The only evidence for the tower's appearance was two old photographs and a drawing made shortly before its removal. Mungo Park, the site architect responsible for the tower reconstruction, regularly checked from the same point where one of the photographs had been taken that the rising replica matched the original.
No attempt was made to disguise the junction between the surviving base of the tower and the new top. It rests on a light steel frame, placed on top of the reinforced concrete lining to the entrance stairwell, which takes all loading directly to the ground.
The brickwork panels beneath the finials are fluted, a feature of other Martin & Chamberlain schools but not found elsewhere at the Ikon. Straight runs of rope reveals to the lancet windows were re-cast from moulds already used for the main building.
String courses were also repeated, but new specials were required for the apex reveals and towards the base of the louvred openings where the rope reveals terminate in canted tapering darts.
The finials were produced at the last minute by a potter in Cornwall and had to be collected hot from the kiln to get them back to site in time for the official opening. What a fitting end to a tale of architectural romance and derring-do.