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'Lack of iconic buildings' damaged Birmingham's city of culture bid

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The chair of the judges for the Capital of Culture 2008 has blamed Birmingham's failed bid on its lack of exciting architecture, prompting a hostile reaction from those leading the city's regeneration.

Sir Jeremy Isaacs said last week that the lack of iconic buildings in Birmingham was a key reason the city lost the coveted title to Liverpool.

'If Birmingham has lacked anything, it is the concept of exciting architecture as a must, ' Isaacs told the Birmingham Post. 'If Birmingham had iconic buildings it would have had a stronger hand.'

But the comments have enraged the designer of the city's highest-profile project. Future Systems' Jan Kaplicky, whose Selfridges department store is due to open later this year, said the comments were short-sighted. 'Selfridges is already iconic, before it is even finished. Not to put the building within the category 'iconic' lacks observation, ' he said. 'I am sure it will be put on the city's postcards.'

Birmingham architect and University of Central England reader Joe Holyoak said he was 'disappointed' by Isaac's remarks. 'I'm sceptical about the value of iconic buildings, ' he said. 'The spaces between buildings that people can inhabit are much more important.'

Although Birmingham lacks iconic buildings they are on the way, he said - and closer to completion than Liverpool's Fourth Grace, which was still 'just pie in the sky'.

However Will Alsop, whose design for the Fourth Grace is being seen as a major contribution to the city's success, defended the judges' emphasis on iconic buildings. 'Liverpool needs iconic buildings, particularly on the waterfront, to get people to visit, ' he said. He also condemned the 'groundswell of opinion' against iconic buildings. 'In England, we always shoot ourselves in the foot.We're limited by the taste-makers' lack of imagination.

'Birmingham has been working very hard at improving itself but has been talking about it for 25 years. It has never managed to get that great piece of architecture, ' he added. 'Future Systems' Selfridges has a nice skin, but I'm concerned the inside will be just another department store.'

Les Sparks, a CABE commissioner and former director of Birmingham's planning and architecture department, said there may be some truth in the charge. 'But we have excelled in good urban design, ' he said. 'It may be that there haven't been the blockbuster buildings, but that has not been our objective. It has been to improve public space and urban design and to get life into the centre. That is more important than stunning iconic buildings.'

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