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Sjölander da Cruz: ‘Birmingham has a history of reinvention, a can-do feel’

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In the latest of our Q&As with Birmingham-based architects, Fran Williams speaks to Sjölander da Cruz Architects to find out what it’s like working as an architect in the UK’s second-largest city

Marco da Cruz and Maria Sjölander, directors, Sjölander da Cruz Architects 

Who are you and when did you set up?
We started the practice in 2001. There are four of us on the staff at the moment, but we are usually between four and six people-strong.  

How did your practice come about?
We were working together on private jobs outside of our day jobs and these slowly became too large to handle at the weekends, so the logical decision was to set up our own practice. 

What kind of projects do you do?
We founded the practice on community and education projects, which remain an important part of our workload. Following the credit crunch and austerity cuts, we sought out additional work in other sectors and have a growing number of commercial clients. 

Squirrel works external small 6

Squirrel works external small 6

Squirrel Works by Sjölander da Cruz Architects

What is Liv Projekt?
Liv Projekt is our development company. Our first project was the conversion of a disused badge factory in the Jewellery Quarter. It was opposite our studio and had been on the market for a number of years before we bought it. We had watched prospective purchasers come and go and became frustrated that no one could see its potential. So, we took a risk and decided to purchase the building and develop it ourselves. 

Why did you decide to base your practice in Birmingham?
We love the dynamism of the city. It has a history of reinvention, a can-do feel, and the confidence of a city with the youngest population in Britain. It’s a great place to practise architecture. 

Too much of what has been built in Birmingham over the past 10 years has been of mediocre quality

What projects in Birmingham are you currently working on?
Some of the projects we are working on include a new-build community centre; a Box Park-style extension to an existing community building using shipping containers; mixed-use regeneration of an industrial site on Legge Lane in the Jewellery Quarter; and a block of new ‘lofts’ on the edge of the city centre. We have developed a specialism in reworking and retrofitting difficult and listed buildings – for example with our River Studio and Squirrel Works projects – giving them a new lease of life.

What are the advantages or disadvantages of being based in Birmingham?
The city really needs architects. There are still stubborn pockets of dereliction close to the city centre which are only now being tackled, so there is real opportunity here. Birmingham has a growing pool of architectural talent and consultants for creating project teams. 

Legge lane courtyard

Legge lane courtyard

Legge Lane by Sjölander Cruz

What percentage of your work is based in the city?
About 80 per cent in terms of value. The architectural scene in Birmingham feels stronger now than it has for years. People are choosing to stay here when they graduate, and to return if they studied elsewhere, which is contributing to its dynamism. 

How would you describe the quality of what has been built in the city over the past decade?
Too much of what has been built in Birmingham over the past 10 years has been of mediocre quality, both in terms of its design and ambition. Fortunately, the ’something is better than nothing’ attitude seems to be changing and there are signs of a new approach encouraging ambition and innovation, which will hopefully improve expectations. 

What effect has the Big City Plan had on Birmingham?
The Big City Plan is an effective enabling document for reversing severe decline and encouraging optimism, which has led to a spike in investment and construction in the city. The difference between this boom and those we have seen before is that it’s not just large, isolated projects that are being built – there is also a clear strategy for improving spaces and public realm. And there is an emphasis on pedestrian connectivity, which has made the city more navigable. The expansion of the centre beyond the historic constraint of the inner ring road is an ongoing project but significant and positive connections are being made. Walking from our studio in Digbeth to the Jewellery Quarter is quick and enjoyable, not something you would have said 10 years ago.  

Legge lane axonometric

Legge lane axonometric

Legge Lane axonometric

Is there a tendency for city leaders and major developers to look outside Birmingham for architects to design its showstopping projects? Does this matter?
It doesn’t matter; the quality of architecture in Birmingham should be world-class, whether it is designed by local or international architects. We all need to raise our game and compete with the best. 

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