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Against all odds

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The Foyer facing the Inner Ring Road intersection of St Chad’s Circus is a very different-looking building from the one that won Ian Simpson the Housing Corporation competition in 1993. The original competition site, 200 metres away, was squashed in between a back street, a canal and a railway viaduct. It was unprepossessing, but Simpson won with an exuberant and glassily transparent design. These qualities were also evident in the proposal later made for the new site, after the canalside site proved to be undevelopable.


But somewhere along the way the design changed in character, and what has now been built is not so exuberant, but more austere. The image of the building is of a five-storey wall which is curved around the street corner; the ground floor is half in blue brick and half in full-height glazing, and above that are four floors composed of startlingly red brick panels, apart from the glazed ‘prow’ at the western end.


The wall’s expression is fortified, and the plan reveals why. There is no entrance into the building from the street; one enters from the courtyard behind, which is contained by the L-shaped building. On the upper floors, all the 80 rooms face away from the building. Behind the red brick panels, punctuated by slit windows, are the single-loaded corridors.


So we have a reversal of the orthodox typology of urban buildings, in which we expect the front, with the main rooms, to be on the street, and the back, with the service spaces, towards the inside of the block. Apparently, the main motive for this reversal is to shield the rooms from traffic noise. But the result is to create architecture which is not street-friendly. It is strange that one can walk the 80m perimeter of the Foyer along the street and receive no clue to what the building is. There are no doors, no signs, and the full-height glazing to the ground floor is heavily fritted so that one sees only shadowy figures through it.


This absence of an active building front is surprising for two reasons. Firstly, the city council has an urban design policy that is transforming the vehicle-oriented and alienating Inner Ring Road into more people-friendly urban streets - boulevardisation in a word. In its massing, the Foyer encloses the corner well, as specified for the site in Llewellyn-Davies’s 1993 Gun Quarter Plan, and the removal of a subway and the construction of a proper pavement are welcome planning gains. But the blankness of the Foyer’s facades replicates that of much of the city’s unsatisfactory Modernist architecture. There is clearly an intended reference to the sheer red brick walls of Pugin’s 1841 St Chad’s Cathedral opposite. But Pugin designed it to be hemmed in densely by houses and workshops; it was not intended to be read as a free-standing monument, as it is today.


Secondly, part of the social programme of the foyer movement is to integrate its community of young people with the wider community outside. We often exaggerate the extent to which architecture can promote social goals such as this, but it can at least express them. For the building to literally turn its back on the city seems contrary to its reason for existing. The architecture suggests social exclusion, not social integration.


Internally, the Foyer is efficiently and neatly planned and detailed. The reception space as the knuckle of the plan, although with no connection to the street, is a light and welcoming place. Like the interior throughout, it is cool and uniformly grey. Adjacent to the reception is the restaurant and main social area on the ground floor. With its full-height fritted glazing to the south, this pleasant space enjoys the views to the street and the exposure to the sun which are denied to the north-facing residential rooms above.


On each of the four upper floors, the corridor terminates at its western end in a triangular common room, its two fully-glazed walls coming to a sharp point. Externally, this ‘prow’ is the Foyer’s most dramatic feature, and one of considerable elegance. It takes aim at another prow building 100 metres away, the ornamented terracotta tower of the 1896 HB Sale building - an intelligent urban gesture. With their commanding views, the common rooms should be popular with residents. But standing in the point is not recommended for acrophobics.


There is considerable skill deployed in this sleek and disciplined building. Within its orderly disposition of elements, the fabric achieves both quality and drama. It is a pity that its principles of urban design and the architectural expression of its social programme are not more appreciated.


Joe Holyoak is reader at Birmingham School of Architecture and a partner in Axis Design Collective


Architect’s account




Ian Simpson Architects


In March 1993 Ian Simpson Architects won an international design competition for the design of the uk’s first purpose-built Foyer on Water Street, a site wedged between a tall building, a canal and a viaduct. The project was scheduled to start on site in October 1993.


It quickly became obvious that the cost of the scheme was in excess of the budget, and the design team entered into an intensive period of redesign which continued into early 1994. Following numerous discussions, the planning department accepted the principle of the development of the site.


Shape, the site owner, hoped to start on site in November, but at this point the planners confirmed that development could not take place within 27m of the railway viaduct. Shape was subsequently taken over by another housing association, Focus, which bought the present site on the busy St Chad’s Circus roundabout, opposite the Catholic cathedral.


The city was keen to have a landmark building on a site that is in effect a gateway to the city centre. Ian Simpson Architects was appointed by Focus to prepare a scheme for this new site. A team of consultants was appointed by Focus and a planning application submitted in August 1996.


The scheme retained the themes of the original competition-winning design, those of transparency, layers of privacy and thresholds, and single banked bedrooms that opened on to a generous glazed circulation space intended to encourage passive and active interaction among the residents.


Planning approval was granted in October and the new design team commenced detail design. However, the need for further cost reductions led to more redesigns and a reduction in the area of glazing.


In retrospect, we feel that the building form is now stronger than when fully glazed, but the planners considered that material changes had been made to the nature of the building and insisted that the revised scheme be approved by the planning committee. Permission was received only two days before the proposed start on site and detail design continued to run parallel with negotiations with the contractor throughout the construction period.


Ian Simpson Architects has worked on the Birmingham Foyer with the aim of producing a building that reflects the intentions of the original competition-winning scheme, despite changes in site, brief, budget, client and design team.


The building was completed against enormous financial and time pressures, due to the commitment of all parties, particularly the client, and the determination of the design team and contractor.


Structural engineer’s account




Maurice Johnson and Associates


Research revealed that the site of the proposed Birmingham Foyer had been occupied by terraced housing, the remnants of a corn mill, warehousing and a canal basin. Site investigation comprising boreholes and trial pits revealed the site to be underlain by fill varying between 2.5m and 5.5m deep, overlying glacial sands and gravels which covered sandstone bed- rock, and gas monitoring revealed low levels of methane but high levels of carbon dioxide. Constraints on foundation design were created by the close proximity of the Salvation Army Men’s Service Centre and the part Pugin-designed St Chad’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. Foundation loads led to the choice of a piled solution and, since vibration was likely to be a problem to adjoining buildings, continuous flight auger grouted piles were chosen, taking their end bearing in the sandstone about 10m below ground level.


Site levels and space requirements dictated the use of basement accommodation for part of the site which was to be below ground level on the frontage and one end. A lack of vertical alignment between the superstructure and basement columns required a transfer slab. Consequently a reinforced concrete retaining wall solution was chosen with a concrete platform at ground level which provided a podium for the superstructure framing. A gas membrane was incorporated in the substructure with a gas drainage blanket venting the gases away from the building.


A number of changes were made to the external cladding, but the structural solution remained reasonably constant since the constraints of speed of building and cost led to a steel frame and precast concrete floor solution. Design studies compared the speed and cost of construction using composite flooring versus precast units, leading to a choice of precast units supported on shallow floor beams to optimise floor heights.


Small section columns designed to fit within the party walls reduced the span of floor beams leading to a minimum floor depth solution. Bay studies showed that this had produced a minimum steel weight solution, with steelwork being expressed to suit architectural requirements.


Cost comment




Silk and Frazier


The project was originally tendered using a jct80 Standard Form of Contract adapted by the contractor’s design portion supplement. Tenders were returned by six contractors on brief specification, drawings and approximate quantities to establish a cost target on Stage 1 of a two-stage tendering procedure. Returns were in excess of available funding, but negotiations resulted in a contract sum with the lowest tenderer of approximately £3.3 million.


Costs were very high for external works both because major service diversions had to be undertaken and because of extensive 278 schedule works involving the filling in and blocking off of pedestrian subway routes under major arterial roads.


The site was very restricted with regard to access and working areas, and this, together with numerous other factors, resulted in an overrun in time on the project of approximately three weeks. However, tight cost control and extensive monitoring ensured that the project was completed within budget.

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