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Chicago firm replaces HOK for 175m Birmingham tower

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HOK International has been dropped as designer of the 175m-high Arena Central tower in Birmingham, set to be the first mixed-used tower block in the UK.

HOK has been working as masterplanner for the 3.2ha site for the past five years, and secured outline planning consent for the controversial tower two years ago after fighting a difficult public inquiry. But developers have now asked Chicagobased firm De Stephano Associates to draw up designs for the building. James de Stephano previously worked for Skidmore Owings & Merrill on London's Broadgate centre and set up his own practice a decade ago.

'I'm talking about a firm which far outshines the experience we have over here, ' said Martin Field, managing director of Arena Central, a subsidiary of developer the Hampton Trust. 'I'd like to have a team that's done this kind of work, day in, day out. To be honest, we just don't have that kind of experience in the UK at the moment.'

The six-phase development will add a new cluster of towers to the city's skyline over the next five or six years. A 19-storey residential block designed by Stephenson Bell Architects is about to go on site. But the real prize is the main tower, a mixed-use scheme offering approximately 30,000m 2of office space and an equal amount of residential accommodation.

Managers with HOK International are philosophical about losing the tower. 'We certainly did quite a bit of work on the tower, ' said director Pierre Baillargeon. 'But we were never working under the impression that we would be doing everything. We're very happy being in a masterplanning role.' Field said he would like to give HOK two buildings in the overall eight-building development, but the final outcome still rests on delicately poised land deals.

Birmingham City Council is rewriting its tall buildings guidance, first drawn up in the early 1990s. The council is reviewing building heights and is in the process of identifying sites to locate clusters of towers.

'We want groups of buildings which have an impact and make the city centre something you can spot from miles away, ' said design policy manager Martin Brown. 'We want to make our skyline a bit more memorable and distinctive.'

The paper will include design guidelines and will run to no more than three pages. It will be presented to council members in December.

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