Historic England has recommended that Birmingham’s 1962 Ringway Centre should not be listed, clearing the way for a major refurbishment by NORR
The heritage watchdog has advised that a certificate of immunity from listing should be granted for the block, designed by James Roberts and Sydney Greenwood and built between 1958 and 1962.
AJ100 practice Norr has been in pre-application planning discussions with Birmingham City Council about plans to partially demolish and reclad the building on behalf of Commercial Estates Group. The developer wants to create new office space within the block and pull down the section running from Holloway Circus island to Hurst Street to make way for a 22-storey residential tower.
In its advice, Historic England said that the building, which stretches for 231 metres along Queensway, was ‘cleverly designed’ to ‘make a large structure seem part of the human city environment’.
However, it added that while the building’s ‘design and compatibility with its setting have distinct quality… it relies on considerable repetition of standardised parts and has undergone alteration to its exterior at ground floor level and to its interiors’.
Responding to Historic England’s advice, campaign group the Twentieth Century Society has written a letter (see below) which describes Ringway as an ‘important heritage asset’. It says: ‘The proposed development would constitute significant and irreversible harm to this well-loved building, which we consider to be of local and national importance.’
Ian Nairn, writing in The Architectural Review in 1960, said: ‘The sum of rebuilding in the three largest English provincial cities [Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester] is just two decent big buildings – Ringway Centre in Birmingham and Albert Bridge House in Manchester … the one really hopeful building in Birmingham is Ringway Centre … the total effect, easily apparent here, is to create a wall with gates in.’
Speaking about the potential loss of the curved block, Birmingham architect and urban designer Joe Holyoak told the AJ: ‘This is disappointing news. There is a real purge of outstanding mid 20th-century architecture in Birmingham. I wouldn’t claim it was a conspiracy but it is a depressing trend.’
Architectural writer and teacher Andrew Higgott added: ‘Even I wouldn’t say it is a great piece of architecture. Its concrete cladding is crudely done. But there is a sense in which there is not much left of 1960s Birmingham and future generations might think that is a shame.’
The decision not to list Ringway House follows the loss of a number of mid 20th-century buildings in the city. In 2000, the council demolished the 1960s Bullring shopping centre, substantially designed by Roberts.
Extracts from the Twentieth Century Society letter to Historic England
’Unlike James Roberts’ Grade II-listed Rotunda building which is an iconic and standalone work of architecture, Smallbrook is an integral part of the urban fabric in its connection to the street and the curvature of its volume as it sweeps towards the city centre.
’Appearing as one flowing expanse, it is in actuality four office blocks linked together, with offices cantilevering over the shop fronts below. Supported by an insitu concrete frame with columns spaced at 18ft intervals down its length, the 50ft wide building stretches for 760ft in an unbroken curve, carried dramatically above the slope of Hurst Street by large, slanted concrete piers. Although the original subway below street level at the Hurst Street crossing has now been in-filled, the bridge is still highly important in its contribution to legibility, framing pedestrian views, orienting movement and channelling traffic under its span.
The proposed development would constitute significant and irreversible harm to this well-loved building
‘The proposed development would constitute significant and irreversible harm to this well-loved building, which we consider to be of local and national importance and a fundamental part of Birmingham’s development as a modern city centre. The proposals to strip the building back to its frame, to re-clad in glass and to destroy the continuity of the scheme through the removal of the bridge element and the construction of a tall tower block on the Hurst Street corner would result in the total loss of an important heritage asset.’