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Birmingham New Street Station by AZPML, Atkins and Haskoll

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A new icon in a city of icons, Birmingham New Street Station might be a triumph of function over form, writes Owen Pritchard

BRIEF • CONCEPT ARCHITECT’S VIEW • ENGINEER’S VIEW • CLADDING DETAIL • PROJECT DATA • TIMELINE

Birmingham is a city of bold architectural landmarks, each with a distinct style. It has become a city of ‘incidents’, to use the words of Mecanoo’s Francine Houben, architect of the Library of Birmingham. These incidents divide opinion - the strange parade of Birmingham icons includes Houben’s library, Selfridges by Future Systems, The Cube by Make, The Mailbox by Associated Architects and the faux historicism of Brindleyplace by Terry Farrell, Demetri Porphyrios et al to name just a few contemporary examples. It is a city that has become a laboratory for fashionable architecture - enabled by a brave (or reckless?) council. New buildings appear to emerge with little consideration of context. To this heady mix the refurbished Birmingham New Street Station by AZPML, Atkins and Haskoll has been added.

The existing station was built in 1967 to replace a Victorian station that was heavily bombed in the Second World War. It was designed to handle 60,000 passengers a day, but by 2010 nearly 170,000 people were passing through the station. The station had not been fit for purpose for some years and at peak times it was not uncommon for the station to shut platforms to ensure passenger safety. In 2000 it was the decided by the clients (Birmingham City Council, the Department for Transport, Advantage West Midlands, Centro and Network Rail) that this station would not only have to handle the growing number of passengers more effectively, but also become a landmark to give visitors a great first impression of Britain’s second city. The refurbished station would improve connections to the rest of the city, acting as a hub for a new metro and, in turn, anticipate the future HS2 development. Expectations for the unloved, reinforced concrete building were high.

It could be mistaken for a glittering spaceport had it been built in New Mexico

Now, Birmingham New Street Station announces itself with a facade that overclads the existing concrete structure with 5,500 highly reflective stainless-steel panels. It could be mistaken for a glittering spaceport had it been built in the New Mexico desert instead of a city-centre site in the Midlands. Before the steel to support the new cladding was hung from the 1960s building structure, a computer simulation was conducted emulating the light conditions on every day of the year to ensure no glare would be cast down on to the tracks and into the eyes of train drivers. The panels reflect the sky, the city, and the movement of people and trains to create a restless presence that is eye-catching and leaves a lasting impression. It’s uncompromising. Rather than absorbing and reflecting its context, it dominates the area.

Above the three main entry points are the ‘media eyes’ - large screens that throw out noisy and hyperactive videos. Imagine the Eye of Sauron had a weekend job doing wedding discos and you will get the idea. Above the Southside entrance rises the new flagship John Lewis store - one of the largest outside London - emerging as a glacial green rotunda from the building’s shiny armour. Over the car park, facing east, the cladding rolls up the full height of the building to become a huge reflective cliff, folding and contorting around the structure.

Inside the improvements leave little to remember just how awful the old station was

Inside, the disco-ball cladding disappears and the improvements leave little to remember just how awful the old station was. For commuters all routes lead under wavy roof baffles - which half-conceal the ducts and cabling fixed to the ceiling - to a vast column-free concourse the size of a football pitch. Twenty-five metres above, the existing glass roof has been replaced with bulging ETFE pillows that sit on 30 metre-long arched steel trusses hidden beneath a tensile PVC fabric structure. At present the material is wrinkled and sags, but during my visit a representative from the engineer, Atkins, told me that the material is undergoing tensioning and the imperfections will disappear.

There are legitimate criticisms that can be levelled at the finesse of this building. The troubles are well documented and for an ambitious concept like this to truly succeed, the execution and build quality need to be exceptional. On the exterior, the cladding panels with their exposed rivets clumsily gather at awkward joints and junctions - the flowing lines are visibly faceted. Inside, in its currently saggy form, what should be mighty and powerful lines from the roof structure have been compromised by the PVC fabric - the new concourse at King’s Cross by John McAslan and Partners is a more eloquent expression of structure. It’s not as if the old station has completely disappeared either - every so often, particularly on the eastern facade, the old building emerges where the new cladding cannot reach. One wonders, if Alejandro Zaera-Polo had got his way, whether instead of the all-too-apparent value engineering, this building might have been something very special.

For all the razzmatazz, the station excels at its primary purpose - being a station

On a mezzanine floor that flanks the concourse is the retail space, formerly the Pallasades Shopping Centre and now renamed Grand Central. It is a warren of 43 shops and cafés which radiate from the centre of the building a landscape of glazing and neon signs that gathers up shoppers and leads them to John Lewis.

For all the razzmatazz of the exterior and the epic aspirations of the main hall, what this station excels at is its primary purpose - being a station. The routes to and from the platform were developed using extensive crowd modelling. Each platform is accessed from one of three ‘airport style’ lounges. There are 36 new escalators and staircases and 15 new lifts that serve the platforms, increasing the capacity of the station to 225,000 passengers a day. The routes to the platforms are only obstructed by the ticket barriers and even the most flustered commuter could dash quickly to find their train with ease.

AZPML, Atkins and Haskoll, along with the clients, have delivered where others have failed. Will Alsop and John McAslan had a go at the project in 2002 and 2006 respectively - and neither got much further than the drawing board. The 2008 competition received entries from an impressive shortlist that included CRAB Studio, UNStudio and Rafael Viñoly Architects. The existing New Street station was an obstinate dog of a building that has all but vanished from the centre of the city, a city that is defining itself with quirky icon after quirky icon. As a piece of architecture, Birmingham New Street falls short of its massive ambitions, but as a piece of infrastructure, it delivers.

Birmingham New Street Station by AZPML, Atkins and Haskoll

Birmingham New Street Station by AZPML, Atkins and Haskoll

Brief

Stephen Ashton, engineering director, Atkins

Birmingham needed a new station that would allow for more passengers both now and in the future. The project’s funders - Birmingham City Council, the Department for Transport, Advantage West Midlands, Centro and Network Rail - also realised that in order to give visitors to Britain’s second city a great first impression, they needed to improve the look and feel of the station. These parties came together in 2000 with a vision for the transformation of New Street Station that would benefit both the people of Birmingham and the regions around the city, and committed the funding to make it happen.

Birmingham New Street Station by AZPML, Atkins and Haskoll

Birmingham New Street Station by AZPML, Atkins and Haskoll

Concept architect’s view

Alejandro Zaera-Polo, director, AZPML

The geometries of motion and the distortion of perception produced by movement have been the inspiration for the architectural expression of the project. The bifurcating, undulating, smooth forms of the tracks were transferred and embedded into the geometry of the building to convey its historical character as a transportation hub, where various traffic systems - the famous canals, the roman roads and so on - converge and overlay.

The design approach aimed to re-establish consistency between form and expression in the new station design, both in the cladding and in the reorganisation of the building. The old structure was built for a different performance to the new station, both in organisational and visual terms. As the cladding could not be related to the interior of the building for practical reasons, the design of the facade has been related to the exterior space, making the building an instrument to intensify the perception of urban life in Birmingham’s inner city, as opposed to trying to reveal its inner structure.

By turning the external rainscreen into a warping, reflective stainless-steel surface, Birmingham New Street Station has been designed to produce controlled reflections of the surrounding urban area: the once dark, now bright Birmingham sky; the crowds of passengers; the trains entering and exiting the station; the hues of the sunset and sunrise; and other dynamic regimes present at the site. To highlight the main access points, large eye-shaped media screens have been integrated into the facade.

Birmingham New Street Station by AZPML, Atkins and Haskoll

Birmingham New Street Station by AZPML, Atkins and Haskoll

Engineer’s view

Steve Toon, design director, AKT II

AKTII has supported AZPML with the new over-cladding and the atria roof, as well as aspects of the Navigation Street Bridge and John Lewis cladding. A crucial aspect of the original competition concept was to apply digital technologies beyond standard 3D modelling and BIM to the project. In the concept stage we collectively scripted reflectivity analysis to help develop the facade geometries, and during the facade development stage we collaborated with AZPML to pattern the stainless-steel cladding to keep the double-curvature panels to a minimum, vastly saving costs and simplifying the construction process.

Birmingham New Street is as much refurbishment as new build; the design of the cladding and atria has constantly been under the influence of the existing building and its many limitations. The new facade has varying constraints with the existing building, and developing a strategy for applying additional loads with limited surplus capacity has been key to the successful delivery of the project. Similarly, the new atria roof structure has been developed in such a way that the loads it applies to the existing building are intricately controlled, in order to minimise the level of costly and disruptive strengthening works. The roof structure is allowed to ‘breathe’ as loading conditions change, which has resulted in only two of the 14 support locations being totally fixed to the existing building.

The project really is a fine example of a design-led solution that has released massive potential within the building. We are very proud to have been involved from competition to construction, in collaboration with Network Rail and Mace. The project should be used as a benchmark for the HS2 agenda.

Cladding detail

Alejandro Zaera-Polo, director, AZPML

Birmingham New Street Station by AZPML, Atkins and Haskoll

Birmingham New Street Station by AZPML, Atkins and Haskoll

Cladding Build Up

The build-up of the secondary structure was agreed to an offset of 450mm between the face of the stainless steel and the centre line of the structural support rails. The cladding contractor adopted a design and fabrication strategy that relies on site installation of individual components. The general build-up of the cladding consists of:

  • A set of vertical aluminium hollow sections at approx 592mm connected to the primary structure horizontal rails by steel brackets
  • A set of U-profiles, both vertical and horizontal, to provide an edge support for each panel
  • Gutters supported from the rails by brackets independent from the panel’s support structure.

In order to respond to the amount of onsite labour and to access limitations, individual cassette modules with pre-assembled secondary structures were used for some parts of the facade.
The panels in the portrait format allow flexibility in length while being restricted in width to a maximum of 1.25m. This design criterion was adopted after specialist contractors advised us that it was the most cost-effective solution, as the panels have been produced from a stainless-steel coil of a standard 1.25m width.

The panels’ length was restricted to a maximum of 5m. This was for reasons of handling and installation as well as the supplier’s machinery for polishing the panels, which was limited to a maximum of 5m in length.
The curvature of the facade is a developable surface that can be unrolled and cut as a flat surface and shaped as necessary on site.

Birmingham New Street Station by AZPML, Atkins and Haskoll

Birmingham New Street Station by AZPML, Atkins and Haskoll

Project data

Start on site September 2009
Completion September 2015
Form of contract or procurement route Design and build - Construction Management
Gross internal floor areaLower mezzanine - 3,000m²; platforms - 8,000m²; concourse - 20,000m²; upper mezzanine - 4,500m²; grand central - 17,000m²; JLP - 24,000m²; upper retail - 15,000m²; total - 91,500m²
Total Construction Cost £750 million         
Concept Architect AZPML
Executive Architect Atkins
Interior Architect Haskoll
Client Network Rail, Birmingham City Council, Department for Transport, Centro, Advantage West Midlands
Structural engineer/conservation AKT II, Atkins
M&E consultant Max Fordham
M&E contractor Hoare Lea (MEP), Atkins
QS Faithful & Gould
Project manager/main contractor Mace
Other consultants/suppliers NG Bailey, Coleman & Company, Elliott Thomas, Martifer UK, Fireclad, MPB, SAS, Vector Foiltec, Glazzard

Birmingham New Street Station by AZPML, Atkins and Haskoll

Birmingham New Street Station by AZPML, Atkins and Haskoll

Timeline

2002 Will Alsop’s design for building unveiled

2006 John McAslan and Partners’ design unveiled

Feb 2008 Atkins awarded lead consultant contract to commence detailed design

July 2008 Mace awarded principal contractor and construction partner role

Sep 2008 AZPML awarded concept architect role

June 2009 Enabling works commence on site

April 2010 Main construction works commence

Oct 2010 Southside Development change instructed - the addition of the John Lewis building and the refurbishment of the Pallasades shopping centre, rebranded Grand Central

April 2013 Phase 1 opens – new west concourse and existing eastern concourse close

Feb 2014 AZPML reduce involvement in project citing differences with contractor. Haskoll appointed interior architect

Sep 2015 Complete concourse opens along with John Lewis and Grand Central shopping centre

Oct 2016 Completion of last platform

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Function over form?? Actually having now used it a couple of times I find it baffling. As a regular user I'm sure I'll catch on but that's not really the point is it?

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