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Sensational Selfridges lacks city's sensitivity


The 'Model answer' report on Birmingham's Bullring and the Selfridges store (AJ 9.10.03) raised a number of issues. One must ask, what was the question? I suggest that in 30 years, if not sooner, the question asked will be why, after a second chance to resolve the area of the Bullring, was the solution so muddled.

The city authorities, the commercial whizz-kids and those who call for sensational gestures have ignored the achievements of the '80s and '90s, which in part restored to Birmingham a sense of pride through civic design. I would ask you to reflect on these achievements.

Firstly, urban spaces have not only been taken back for pedestrians, but done so in a way that, by use of brick paving, links pedestrianised areas, streets and pavements. This simple principle ties together buildings of all ages and styles, with a degree of individuality, quality and warmth of feeling. From Brindleyplace and the canal, through Centenary Square to New Street station, there is a feeling of homogeneity and design.No other city in Britain has achieved such a consistent, unifying and interesting groundscape.

Secondly, Brindleyplace and surroundings are developments of architectural integrity, giving an ordered stylish environment, incorporating squares, retail, housing, and the canal.They present an image of Birmingham's regained self-confidence. Add Symphony Hall, the link through Centenary Square to the library and City Hall, and a continuum with the past era of substance is achieved.

This is 'urban renaissance' of a substantial kind; planning and negotiation have been eminently successful.

But consider the Bullring, and in particular the building massing, the relationship to groundscape and the quality of the urban design. There is little, if anything, of the sensitivity or quality that I have referred to above.That unifying floorscape has been disregarded; instead, major public open spaces are drab grey paving with no relieving pattern or shape, and no colour differentiation. The new shopping buildings are a motley collection of architectural expressions, where 'scale'seems irrelevant;

and the so-called 'landmark' building of Selfridges is of a shape and appearance that wilfully relates to nothing around it.

The junction of the 'blancmange' shape with Debenhams must go down in any design manual as a 'classic'misfit. The mismatch of shapes and colours defies belief that architects and planners were working together and that the whole of the Bullring was a simultaneous creation.

Leaving apart whether Selfridges will work as a retail 'palace'without substantial reappraisal, how could such an important part of the city's centre be such a failure in overall civic design? The relationship between Selfridges and Debenhams, and St Martin's, is one of unrelieved bleakness and isolation of the church.As a reminder of what it might have been, recall Centenary Square, or the City Hall, where great care and skill have been deployed.

Birmingham has had much better civic design in recent past.What has gone wrong? Why has that sensitivity in development been lost? Are the powers that be paying too much heed to those who clamour for 'icons' and sensationalist development per se, instead of careful, integrated design at all levels? Is it the same regime that has lost this piece of urban design that sees the demise of the library and its replacement by office towers as their best goals? If so, there is a poor prospect ahead for Birmingham.

Would it be too much to hope that things could be better?

Tom Ball, London SW1

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