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Birmingham Charrette: The brief

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Here’s the brief we gave the teams

This charrette asks the design teams to consider the townscape of three distinct, yet interlinked, squares within Birmingham’s Paradise Circus development; to propose ways to define, develop and differentiate the character of these squares; and to explore ways in which these areas can be linked together by a shared design language.

Making a place

The Design Protocol Statement, part of Glenn Howells Architects’ masterplan document (see below left), identifies the following principles on which development will be implemented:

  • connectivity;
  • massing
  • major highways transformation
  • character of spaces
  • facilitating future Metro provision

The charrette will focus on the fourth aspect of this: character of spaces. Subtle factors all combine to influence the character of a space. We want our teams to embrace and explore these factors.

Design teams may make proposals which include the programming of the spaces, the design of the streetscape, materials used and the approach to landscaping and planting throughout.

An approach to connectivity and massing has been outlined in the planning proposal but the discussion about materials, heights, spacing and character is still very much alive and will be developed in the next stage of detailed design. Designers have a real opportunity to influence these: it is all up for grabs, so are asked to take a creative, adventurous approach to the means in which character is defined and established.


The drawings should include at least two of the following:

  • a perspective of the streetscape
  • one detailed sketch drawing of the street
  • a selection of three or four ‘vignette’ drawings which convey how the space might be used or what it is made from

The drawings should clearly evoke the character of the place and give an idea of what happens there.

Birmingham, its character and you: an Architects’ Journal briefing

Birmingham has always been a place where the very idea of what a city should be, or can be, has been tested, developed and put into practice. It is unafraid of new ideas.

When its free reference library opened in the 1860s, the nonconformist preacher and activist George Dawson proclaimed that it was an ‘expression of a conviction on your part that a town like this exists for moral and intellectual purposes’. Its great Victorian city builders were inspired by Haussmann’s Paris. Not just by its townscape, but by the French capital’s enlightened sense of itself. As Jonathan Meades writes in Museum Without Walls: ‘When it came to public buildings, Birmingham showed Britain the way: it was a virtual city state which invented the notion of civic pride.’

The new library by Mecanoo - dubbed ‘a people’s palace’ by Francine Houben - is the latest project in that rich tradition. Yet Birmingham has always moved with the times too - and has forged many successful partnerships with the private sector to enliven and enrich its townscape. Argent’s Brindleyplace is an excellent example. Future Systems for Selfridges is another. And your work today is another project in that spirit.

With that in mind, I’d like to mention another Birmingham tradition, that of the ‘Special’: hand-built one-off cars made from parts cobbled from here and there, often built by automotive workers who couldn’t afford to buy one of the models they helped assemble.

Birmingham has always been Britain’s Motown of course - another idea of the city, a futuristic one, that Birmingham boldly experimented with. The first recorded house with a garage was in Birmingham - in 1902 - while a ride along its motorways, says Meades, is ‘like driving into Godard’s Alphaville’.

But back to the Specials: these were intriguing designs. Designs that used what was already there, what was available, but reorganised them in new ways to make something new, something fresh.

And it’s that spirit we want to inspire in you today. Good luck! Rory Olcayto

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