Birmingham: the unfinished revolution

by robertmcnicol

Hello both. I’m meant to be writing a project about refitting an office building to the highest standards of sustainable energy excellence. But I’m not. I’m writing instead for your reading pleasure about a city I have a soft spot for, and how it was treated in the first decade of this century.

For three delightful years, I studied Philosophy at Birmingham. I learnt a smattering of Nietzsche, a smattering more of Schopenhauer and had my first, tentative forays into somewhere that was beginning to describe itself as a “gay village”, with that post-QAF new sense of pride – and marketing potential – that was taking root in queer communities in English cities.

Whilst I was there – in 2000 – the Mailbox opened. This behemoth was noted amongst my Brummie friends as something of an ananchronism: it was due to house a Harvey Nicks, amongst other things. Jeez, this wasn’t what Birmingham was known for. Trashy hen weekends, yes; car manufacturing, sure; a strange round 60s tower called the Bull Ring, kind of. But high-end retail? Nah. I mean, that was what Rackham’s was for, right? And only your posh cousin Stanley’s grandma shopped there.

The Mailbox, in typical Birmingham style, was a building that fronted a busy A road and had a canal out the back. The site had previously housed an enormous sorting office (hence the referential name), built in 1970 with mechanised sorting and a tunnel link to the nearby New Street station; it had been the largest building in the city and its core steel structure was re-used in the new building.

That’s not to say the Mailbox wasn’t welcomed. This building, which you can walk through, the restaurants and shops, the canal behind with its new bridges and walkways, became a new promenade for the city’s young folk, who would swank through from their office jobs in the city centre to their favourite All Bar One on Brindley Place. Unfortunately on their way there they had to traverse the optimistically decorated underpass out the front.

Come on guys, it’s not like Brummies are unfamiliar with the dingy concrete idiom of subways and flyovers! Still, the architects chose to decorate this space. The coloured bands, in case you’re wondering, go up the streetlights. It’s entirely unclear why.

The Mailbox and the surrounding area behind are prime exemplars of the great experiment of New Labour urbanism – that grand project, spearheaded by the unlikely bedfellows of Richard Rogers and John Prescott, to revitalise the country’s cities through mixed-use, high-density developments. In this variant we get high-end retail, a canal, proximity to the entertainment area (quarter?) around Broad Street, the BBC (gotta have those “creatives”) and – of course – plenty of flats.

So we get these typical canal houses, with their wood cladding, splash of colour (blue window frames! Perfect!) and utterly unforgivable Juliet balconies:

(It should be noted that this area is made immeasurably better by the presence of real actual people living and playing on real actual narrowboats.)

And the other major crime in the area is the typical over-reliance on terracotta cladding, whereby the finest building material ever utilised by human or beast is transformed into so much thermodynamic wallpaper:

You wanna live there, right? Still, there is one building that is actually reasonably impressive. Local boy done good Ken Shuttleworth left Fosters to set up MAKE Architects (their errant capitalisation, not mine) back in 2003. MAKE, from what I’ve seen of their output, aren’t too bad. Some buildings (like the Grosvenor Waterside development, which I inexplicably enjoyed a while back. What was I thinking?) are terrible, but this one has a searing confidence to it and a quality of construction that you just don’t get down here in provincial Brighton.

There are obvious nods to the deconstructivist tendency, with the obscure spill-over roof. Quite simply it looks like a mistake, an untucked shirt collar perhaps. And then there’s the heavily peirced facade, and those myriad pixellated Greek crosses, bubbling up the front.

Of course, this isn’t Liebeskind – this jagged, broken structure has no meaning. Yes, there’s the usual archispiel platitudes on their website about how the building’s architectural language is:

derived from strong local references to Birmingham’s industrial heritage, celebrating the contrasts between heavy industrial metal working and hand-crafted jewellery and watch making.

This is, of course, bollocks. But it’s a good building, one which contributes positively to the city. And whilst I stuck to the other side of the canal and didn’t venture inside, it seems to me that it’s much more of an architectural success than anything nearby.

The Cube is the last of the buildings to be constructed on the site as part of the redevelopment. It is, then, something of a last hurrah for Birmingham’s mixed-use urban renaissance bullishness. A few streets away one can find clear evidence of what the next stages were meant to be. The area behind Broad Street is full of this building’s poorer relations – the low-rise high-density blocks of flats and occasional row of townhouses that embodied the predominant form of aspirational home ownership that typified the early 2000s, and there’s a thankfully empty plot, with the usual hoardings promising “exclusive city living” in “luxury apartments” and a picture of a building so appalling that, surely, it can only ever have been meant as a joke.

With the bursting of the housing bubble and the rise of the Tories, the urban renewal project came to a crashing halt. No doubt in a city near you there are similar sites, waiting for a future that will now never happen. Here, in chipboard and rainbeaten posters, is one reason that New Labour’s project failed: most of the buildings their private speculators built – or threatened to build – were rubbish. For every Cube there are a hundred of these mean, underthought blocks of flats which even buy-to-let speculators were wary of.

The canal project at Birmingham was an attempt to create a place where all people needed were flats, leisure distractions and shopping malls, as if somehow Birmingham could become a city of the endless drizzly holiday. As if to demonstrate this great vision of the future, the hoardings on another undeveloped site are created from the oversize grinning bonces of the ideal citizen.

Lovely moderist office blocks tower in the background, sneering at the buildings that never were, smug in the knowledge that they at least have purpose and function and windows and a little thing called physical presence.

We wait to see what the future holds for our cities. It seems to me that our current political overlords are doing their darndest to reinflate the housing bubble, in the vain hope that this will “get the nation building again” (when the one sure fire way of doing so would be for the nation to, er, build some buildings). But we know, from the draft NPPF, that there will be little control on where this housing is (if it even arrives) and less prioritisation of high-density city living. We will never know whether this great urban dream could have been anything more than the partial success we see here at Birmingham.