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In focus: Ten years on, how is Birmingham’s Big City Plan doing?

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Next year Birmingham’s Big City Plan celebrates its 10th birthday. Birmingham-based architect and urban designer Joe Holyoak gives his report on the plan’s success

Birmingham has always gone after growth and development with enormous energy and ambition, conscious of its role as the biggest city after London, and anxious to justify and expand its status. But in the past it has not paid adequate attention to the quality of the transformations it has made and its reputation has suffered as a result. 

It is remarkable how many major planning and design mistakes have been made through this energetic ambition, which have later been corrected with similar energy and ambition. The 1960s saw the building of the Inner Ring Road, the Bull Ring Shopping Centre and the redevelopment of New Street Station, while the 1970s brought the Wholesale Markets complex.

Riba2556 10

Riba2556 10

Source: John McCann / RIBA Collections

Bull Ring shopping centre with the Rotunda under construction in the right background

By 1971, 464 municipal tower blocks had been built. All of these have subsequently been revised or removed in a more enlightened period. But this is an expensive, exhausting and destabilising way to make progress. It is not to be recommended.

The Highbury Initiative, a weekend workshop in 1987, organised by DEGW and Urbed, was a key event that helped the city’s management realise it had to aspire to a better-quality city centre. Several policies formulated that weekend have shaped the city’s subsequent development. 

The 2010 Big City Plan (BCP) for the city centre, produced by Birmingham City Council and Urban Initiatives, stands on the shoulders of Highbury, even if it makes no mention of it. It was preceded in 2007 by a visioning study written by academic Michael Parkinson, which set out the social and economic criteria for the spatial plan that was to follow.

The BCP described itself as a masterplan but it is not. It is an aspirational framework for how the city centre is to be developed and improved over a 20-year period, and it is a non-statutory planning document. Some parts of it were new proposals, others were existing initiatives stitched into the tapestry: the dismantling of the ring road (a Highbury policy), the transformation of New Street Station and the new Mecanoo library.

Halfway through the 20 years, how is the BCP doing? One thing that jumps out on rereading the document is the minor role given to High Speed 2, which was announced in the same year (2010). The plan includes it, but does not fully anticipate the extent to which it would become a driver of planning and the economy even now, seven years before it is due to open, assuming the government presses ahead with it.

Shutterstock view over selfridges towards new street

Shutterstock view over selfridges towards new street

Source: Shutterstock

City centre: view over Selfridges towards New Street

It is a telling reminder of how quickly a plan can be overtaken by events instigated from elsewhere. Curzon Street Station, the Grimshaw-designed HS2 terminal, will sit on the edge of the inner-city district of Digbeth– a designated conservation area with medieval origins, and an industrial area in transition to a so-called ‘creative quarter’. 

Parkinson, writing before HS2 was proposed, was enthusiastic about Digbeth’s potential. ‘This is one of the most exciting parts of the city, which has authenticity, grit, great buildings, waterways,’ he said. ‘In other cities it would be a jewel. It is absolutely critical that this area is developed in the right way for the city. It certainly must not be overdeveloped or sanitised by conventional development.’

Yet the 2014 Curzon Masterplan, produced by the city council when the full potential impact of HS2 had become better understood, proposes city-centre-scale development in Digbeth, contrary to the council’s conservation area management plan.

There is also the matter of HS2 severance. The terminal station will bury streets that presently connect Digbeth to the city centre, presenting a 1km-long barrier to movement, penetrated at only one point. One major connection, Fazeley Street, is already closed. Neither the Big City Plan nor the Curzon Masterplan mention severance; they promote connectivity.

The Curzon Masterplan is one of several for parts of the city centre that the council has produced since the BCP. The Smithfield Masterplan is for the redevelopment of the 8ha walled stockade of the wholesale markets, a disastrous 1970s development. The previous street plan is to be largely restored, joining up the district once again, with a mixed-use redevelopment including 2,000 new dwellings and new retail markets. 

The Rea Valley Urban Quarter Masterplan is for a 1km2 zone immediately south of Smithfield, and proposes the renaturalisation of Birmingham’s hidden and little-known River Rea. The Cheapside district is mainly industrial, containing many small businesses, Both the BCP and the masterplan cite ‘authenticity’ as a guiding principle, yet gentrification of the fine grain of small industrial businesses, a particularly authentic feature of Birmingham’s economy and townscape, seems threatened by residential development. 

A promising feature of the BCP was the Birmingham House. This was a proposed competition for local architects to design a new model for city-centre family houses. The BCP recognises that, while thousands of apartments have been built in the city centre since the 1990s, developers have built few family properties, lacking a 21st-century high-density urban model for family houses. But, disappointingly, the Birmingham House proposal has disappeared, without explanation.

The competition for the redesign of New Street Station (voted Britain’s worst railway station in 2014) was won in 2008 by Foreign Office Architects, and the scheme was included in the BCP. The building was delivered by Foreign Office Architects’ successor AZPML with Atkins and Haskoll and opened in 2015.

Azplm bns3

Azplm bns3

Source: Anthony Coleman

New Street Station, which was refurbished in 2015 by AZPML with Atkins and Haskoll

The scheme sought to rescue the station from the disastrous decision taken in the 1960s to build a shopping centre above it, and a car park on top of that. This condemned the station to a dark, depressing basement and also made it a large obstacle to pedestrian movement in the city centre. The great benefit of the redesign is a new permeability, with several entrances and exits. But this permeability is not matched by legibility.

A passenger emerging into the atrium from the platforms below is given little indication of which direction to go in. A vast top-lit atrium was created by knocking a big hole through the shopping centre, now renamed Grand Central. Foreign Office Architects’ intention was that daylight should continue further downwards to light the platforms below. This, however, did not happen, and passengers continue to arrive in subterranean gloom.

Construction of the new Library of Birmingham was underway when the BCP was written. Mecanoo’s great people’s palace was the subject of much controversy, both over the building itself and the demolition of the library it replaced, John Madin’s concrete inverted ziggurat of 1974 – a Brutalist masterpiece. This followed controversy about an earlier design by Richard Rogers (on the site now to be occupied by Curzon Street Station), which fell victim to party politics when Labour lost control of the council in 2006. 

One of the reasons given for scrapping Rogers’ design was that it was too expensive; the Mecanoo library cost even more. Running costs have had to be cut since the library opened in 2013, with many staff jobs lost. But the interior spaces are grand, and the rooftop gardens are rightly popular, even if Mecanoo founder Francine Houben’s justification for the external Swiss-manufactured aluminium tracery as representing Birmingham’s metalworking history is rather threadbare.

Shutterstock 319187756

Shutterstock 319187756

Source: Shutterstock

Mecanoo’s Library of Birmingham

The library overlooks Centenary Square, redesigned in 1991, as a by-product of the adjacent International Convention Centre. Like many buildings and spaces in Birmingham, it did not survive for long and has been replaced this year by a new design by Graeme Massie Architects. 

Many have queried both the need for the redesign, and its cost. The big casualty is artist Tess Jaray’s marvellous ‘Persian carpet’ of polychromatic brickwork from the original square, now destroyed. For a brief period it could be appreciated from Mecanoo’s lower roof garden, but no longer.

The city centre is currently being remade to an extent not seen since the 1960s. The single Metro tram route is being extended past Centenary Square to Five Ways. Opposite the library, Make’s masterplanned Arena Central development is mostly built. Make’s HSBC building and Stephen Hodder’s Dandara residential building struggle to be neighbours to Richard Seifert’s Grade II-listed archetypal object building, the Alpha Tower. Nearby, Glenn Howells’ Paradise masterplan has replaced Madin’s Central Library.

The first building, Eric Parry Architects’ offices for PwC, is complete, quietly elegant. Not far away, a 26-storey office tower designed by Doone Silver Kerr is rising, rudely intruding into Birmingham’s most coherent street, Colmore Row and its eponymous conservation area. 

Shutterstock 1392596585 view towards new street at dawn

Shutterstock 1392596585 view towards new street at dawn

Source: Shutterstock

City centre: view towards New Street

Tall buildings are seen by many in Birmingham as a measure of status. Following Highbury, the city had a logical tall-buildings policy, but this is now frequently ignored in planning decisions. Another big Howells masterplan on the other side of the city core, Martineau Galleries, a 255,000m2 mixed-use complex of seven buildings, has been submitted for outline approval. It is a good permeable plan, but it will remove Frederick Gibberd’s 1960s Corporation Square shopping centre, a low-rise but urbane development. 

Permanence is a rare quality in Birmingham. The city’s restlessness creates discontent with what it has and encourages its replacement by something else. Admirable ambition leads to misjudgments being made, which then require rethinking and reconstruction.

The BCP, with its urban design sensibility and its practical criteria of liveability and connectivity, to some extent set a template for a city centre not only more attractive and efficient, but more stable and sustainable. But it is a non-statutory document; it cannot direct, and economic dynamism continues to shape the city in ways that do not always completely conform to any planned pattern.

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