In the latest in our series of Q&As with Birmingham-based architects, Fran Williams speaks to Intervention Architecture to find out about what they love and don’t love about their home city
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Anna Parker, founding director, Intervention Architecture
Who are you?
We are a team of five full-time staff with a mix of two architects, two Part 2 architectural assistants and one Part 1 architectural assistant. I set up the practice in January 2015.
How did your practice come about and why did you decide to base it in Birmingham?
After qualifying in London and working in small practice culture there, I moved back to my home city of Birmingham. I worked for a large firm (as they dominate the scene here) but missed the intimate project relationships and nimbleness that small practices have. So I set one up with no money, no family connections and no experience of running a business. The studio has been building up slowly from there. I am a part-time tutor at the Birmingham School of Architecture and Design, a job which has supported the studio financially and given a platform to test research ideas and to find employees.
Hazel and haydn salon
What kind of projects do you do?
We design buildings, interiors, joinery, lighting, pavilions, public realm, and emphasise the involvement of community engagement in all of our ways of working. We undertake live projects and physical builds, working with artists, curators, community groups and local schools. Our interest is in site-responsive works and engaging with users at every stage.
What projects in Birmingham are you currently working on?
Eighty per cent of our work is based in Birmingham. We are a lead partner on the redevelopment of the Solihull Transport Interchange project, which includes all the train and bus stations in Solihull. Partnering with Mott MacDonald and Hawkins\Brown, we are the community engagement lead and partnering designer on providing a new transport hub for the borough. Elsewhere in the West Midlands, we are working on a bespoke joinery project for a hairdresser in Stratford Upon Avon, as well as several domestic houses. We have formed the collective Make:it_Brum with the Birmingham branch of Arup. Over the past three years we have run workshops with local schoolchildren aged 13-15 to provide insight into careers in construction. We work on live projects, which we design and build with them.
What are the pros and cons of being based in Birmingham?
Firstly, you can really get to know the networks of people and communities very quickly – locals are friendly and eager to collaborate well across projects. However, we find the building industry to be quite commercially minded here and dislocated from London’s opportunities, cultures and exposure. There is also a huge challenge in working with smaller budgets to achieve high-quality finishes, but it’s a parameter that has become a major part of our work and we push ourselves to find ways that we can work with homeowners on this.
We find the building industry to be quite commercially minded here, dislocated from London’s opportunities, cultures and exposure
Do you think Birmingham has as strong an architecture scene as other major UK cities?
It’s not that there isn’t a very strong architectural scene – there is, for example, a very popular Birmingham Association of Architects – it is more that the architecture scene is dominated by input from a few large practices, so the spread of influence isn’t as varied. Birmingham is a big city and there’s a lot going on. We are more linked with the arts scene here as it ties in with our interests as a practice. There are lots of galleries and emerging art studios on our doorstep in Digbeth and we have grown alongside them proudly.
Wriiters coach house crop
What effect has the Big City Plan had on Birmingham?
It has provided a framework for increasing growth in the city. There is an upcoming design guide, which I am contributing to and which we hope will help shape the increasing transformation of the city in reinforcing a high-quality output. I sit on Birmingham City Council’s Design Review Panel and am the only female practice director on it, so I hope to be able to continue to provide an informed view of the importance of small practices.
How would you describe the quality of what has been built in the city over the past decade?
I think it is a shame that we have lost key components of Modernist heritage, particularly some iconic Brutalist buildings such as John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library, which previously added to the identity of the city centre. There are some areas that are also experiencing a poor-quality ‘copy-and-paste’ culture for new builds, which doesn’t reflect how people live in Birmingham. I think that, in every city, to have a tapestry of talent from all influences is beneficial and to encourage international cross-collaboration in this as an international city is only a good thing. I do think that Birmingham City Council could look to a wider range of local architects, small and large, to contribute equally. Sadly, framework agreements still prohibit this, but we are looking forward to seeing this change.
Intervention Architecture: ‘Locals are friendly and eager to collaborate’