In the first of a series of Q&As with Birmingham-based architects, Fran Williams speaks to APEC to find out what it’s like working as an architect in the UK’s second-largest city
More from: APEC: ‘We spark off Birmingham’s energy’
Naomi Fisher, director, APEC Architects
Who are you?
A five-strong practice working mostly on community-led projects across the West Midlands area and specialising in heritage design and work for the third sector. The directors are myself and James Phillips.
When did you set up?
The practice was established 50 years ago, in 1969. We’ve moved into the ‘second generation’ now.
How did APEC come about?
It started as a result of research by two architects at the University of Birmingham’s Institute for the Study of Worship and Religious Architecture. They were investigating the challenges facing churches in an age of social and physical fabric change and led a live project for a new church combining worship and community space. They built on this church work with a lot of projects in London’s East End before moving into heritage as a reaction against demolition. I worked here in my year out and, after gaining other experience, returned in 2005, becoming a director in 2007.
New church ‘plant’ in derelict former gas retort house (grade ii star listed)
What kind of projects do you do?
We take a progressive approach to heritage in terms of sustainability, which we see as a positive challenge. Our projects are examples of this approach – they are user-led, collaborative, immersive, accessible and inclusive. It is essential for us to really get to know the people we work with. We often work with clients with multiple complex needs – those disengaged with participation in our city. We see ourselves as a facilitator in that context.
What percentage of your projects are based in Birmingham?
50 per cent of our current work is in Birmingham and 30-40 per cent elsewhere across the West Midlands. Before the recession, we were doing stuff more nationally but now we find it more efficient to work on projects nearby – especially when our projects are on site.
Why did you decide to base your practice in the city?
We love the city and love its communities. Most people in Birmingham have a passion and special place in their hearts for the city. We spark off that kind of energy. The benefits of working on local projects have been really great; we feel we are able to become a sort of ‘connector’ between many organisations.
Proposed new museum and archives, west birmingham. concept design
What are you currently working on?
A major remodelling of Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s front-of-house areas and a new entrance for the building’s iconic façade. The project is about inclusion – blurring the boundaries between theatre and the public realm by creating a more permeable façade, increasing footfall and engagement with the theatre’s activities. The theatre now feels dwarfed by neighbouring new builds such as Mecanoo’s library. The project is about reinserting its physical presence as the only producing theatre in the city and a big part of Birmingham’s cultural portfolio.
The Library of Birmingham has meant lots of resources have been taken away from local libraries. We are doing a lot of feasibility work looking at a new future for libraries
What other notable projects in Birmingham have you worked on?
In 2003 when the Bull Ring was redeveloped, we designed a new building adjoining the Grade II*-listed St Martin church to house community facilities and an arts café. Its welfare facilities support the Bull Ring’s homeless community, who would otherwise have been dispersed by the redevelopment. We’re interested in giving buildings and structures new purpose – heritage work with a commercial buy-in. For example, the new Library of Birmingham has meant lots of resources have been taken away from local libraries. We are doing a lot of feasibility work, looking at a new future for libraries. We’ve also done a study addressing social isolation for a group of local artists who have wanted to set up a local ‘art room’ in some disused space in a library, where the public can drop in.
Conversion of at risk grade ii star listed building and scheduled ancient monument into shared space for existing village and new later living and high dependency care enabling scheme
What are the pros and cons of being based in Birmingham?
On the plus side, we are surrounded by passionate citizens. It is a large city but also seems like a village at times, meaning one can develop networks quickly, allowing us to get to know the sectors quite well and in depth. However, Birmingham City Council is the largest local authority in Europe and can be difficult to engage with. Strategy doesn’t always filter down to officer level.
What do you think about Birmingham’s architecture scene?
There’s a smaller number of architectural graduates here and so fewer people starting up on their own. Lots of my contemporaries went to already-established practices. While relatively small, there’s a great community among architects in the city and I’d say there’s a culture of support and collaboration, where appropriate.
What effect has the Big City Plan had on Birmingham?
It is only just starting to bear fruit. The main challenge of travelling around the city, however, has not been resolved. You often need two modes of public transport to get somewhere relatively close. This has to be addressed more boldly and ambitiously.
How would you describe the quality of what has been built over the past decade?
While Manchester seems to take the model of tall shiny things, akin to many far Eastern cities, Birmingham is going down a more conventional European city route of a few iconic bits among medium-density infill. Large recent schemes have been of variable quality, yet I think there’s been an improvement – which doesn’t always get shouted about – in the quality of the architecture that has been knitted into the city’s grain.