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Glenn Howells: ‘I have never known a city change itself with such pace and ambition’

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In the latest of our Q&As with Birmingham-based architects, Fran Williams speaks to Glenn Howells to find out what he loves about working in the UK’s second-largest city

Glenn Howells, director, Glenn Howells Architects 

When did you set up?
I set the practice up about 30 years ago in London, then quite soon got some opportunities in the Midlands after winning a competition for an arts complex in Hereford and starting work on the Custard Factory. Half our work is based in the city now and our main office is located there. 

How big are you?
We are about 160 people with 100 in Birmingham and the rest in London. 

What kind of projects do you do?
Our projects are quite broadly spread. We generally don’t do big industrial projects, but everything else, from masterplanning to small community projects. At the moment, our work ranges from the HS2 masterplan to university buildings to heritage projects. So, it’s on a range of scales and that’s intentional. It means our ideas ‘cross-pollinate’ and our practice has a healthy mix of things. 

St pauls quarter

St pauls quarter

St Paul’s Quarter

Why did you decide to move your main office to Birmingham?
In addition to the city’s opportunities, I grew up near the city and therefore feel passionate about the place, so it felt a natural thing to do. I saw it as a real chance to work in the UK’s second largest city to help it move forward. The quality of life here is amazing – I live one mile from the office, the city is green and liveable, and we have access to some great designers here because of that. Our office in Birmingham is 10 times the size of the London office. Many of our London employees have realised they need to move further out in order to have a better quality of life so that way we can attract people here. 

What projects are you currently working on in Birmingham?
We are working on Paradise, an 190,000m2 mixed-use scheme for Argent and Hermes Real Estate in conjunction with Birmingham City Council. It’s about dismantling and readjusting the city’s public spaces, returning them to pedestrians and cyclists. We are working up proposals for the regeneration of Martineau Galleries, a 280,000m2 district in the city centre with developer Hammerson. The development will help aid the integration into the city fabric of HS2, for which we’re also looking at the public transport, new station and surrounding employment uses. We are also working on the masterplan for the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games athletes’ village with Glancy Nicholls Architects. At the other end of the scale we have a project at the locally listed Hanbury Hall and a new teaching building for University College Birmingham. 

The quality of life here is amazing – and we have access to some great designers here because of that

What advantages do you see in being based in the city?
There are so many opportunities to work on transforming the city and the towns and cities around it. Birmingham is in the centre of the country, so we have access to Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham, where we also have projects. The cultural connections are also great. I sit on the board of several theatre and arts organisations. There are huge amounts going on here. I find it hugely exciting. I have never known a city change itself with such pace and ambition. The city’s motto is ‘forward’ and, although we question some of the changes the city has put itself through over 100 years, there is such potential to come. 

What effect has the Big City Plan had on Birmingham?
It has had a huge effect. Over 10 years ago we were in discussion with the council, saying we needed something to help control development, as there wasn’t the right level of planning going on. The Big City Plan has been transformational, yet flexible. How you grow as a city doesn’t happen by accident and connecting across the motorway system wouldn’t have worked without a blueprint. However, we need to keep refreshing it. The plan didn’t take on HS2, so we are keen for it to continue but to ensure that it is a ‘living’ plan, rather than one set up for a point in time.

One centenary way

One centenary way

One Centenary Way

How would you describe the quality of what has been built in the city over the past decade?
Some very good projects have been built but the major drawback is the perception that values are quite low. It’s about getting the right budget to build. The most ambitious long-term developers always push quality, so we’re optimistic about a lot of the developments we’re working on. The average level of build across the city is definitely getting better. 

Do you think there is a tendency for city leaders and developers to look outside Birmingham for designers?
It’s an international city and has the ambition to match, so it is always looking for international contributions. It’s really about an exchange of talent. I think it’s positive to encourage and support practices from elsewhere, always trying to find rich, diverse quality.

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