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Birmingham puts its money where its mouth is

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It's big, it's bold, and you could never call it beautiful.

Birmingham Mailbox, the subject of this week's building study, is unlikely to be anybody's favourite building. It lacks the drop-dead glamour of, say, Future Systems' design for the new Birmingham Selfridges. It is, however, an intelligent and highly significant regeneration project. The former Royal Mail sorting office - which seemed doomed to an existence as an outsize eyesore - has been reinvented as the largest mixed-use building in Britain, providing the city with a shopping centre, office space, restaurants and housing.

Just as important is the project's contribution to the urban realm. Like Pringle Richards Sharratt's Sheffield Millennium Galleries (AJ 3.5.01), Associated Architects' Mailbox is perceived as a route as opposed to a destination. The plan is informed by the decision to cut a street through the heart of the building linking New Street Station and the canalside convention centre, making this part of the city centre accessible to pedestrians.

This week, Birmingham City Council (whose cooperation greatly benefited the Mailbox scheme) has announced Timpson Manley the winner of a competition to develop a pedestrian link into Birmingham's historic Jewellery Quarter - yet more evidence that accessibility and an improved public realm are fundamental to the council's vision.

Birmingham has demonstrated its commitment to urban design with the recent launch of an urban design department. The council is currently looking to recruit a 'city architect' to head up the team and take responsibility for formulating and implementing a design strategy for the city. It may sound like yet another instance of a public institution paying lipservice to the jargon of the moment, but the evidence suggests that the 'city architect' will be more than a figurehead. The urban design department has a staff of 300, including architects, building surveyors, engineers and maintenance staff. And the job of heading it commands a salary of £70,000 - proof that Birmingham City Council is prepared to put its money where its mouth is.

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