Split Pediment

The musings of a Brighton-based architecture dweeb and town planner in training.

Tag: MAKE architects

Birmingham: the unfinished revolution

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.

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A very posh development for very posh people

I frequently visit London and mainly travel there by train, arriving at the great sheds of Victoria station and emerging – fresh and buoyed by my blessed Brighton – into the drizzle and hustle of London, its streets notsomuch paved with gold as sodden in silver lamplight and reflections of grey Portland stone – but no less marvellous for that.

On recent visits I’ve been monitoring the construction of an interesting building that appears just on the left after you cross the Thames (and just after one of the finest Mansard roofs in all London). From the rear the building looks like a big metal box, punctured with a few slittly vertical windows and decorated with an odd camouflage-like patterning etched into the facade; all thoroughly ordinary. However, from the front, the building is far more interesting and intricate, as you can see:


Ooh! Isn’t it interesting! The maze-like frontage on the building is really very cleverly done; it successfully breaks up the boring box shape and gives the building some depth, aided by the way some of the openings aren’t closed off at the ends of the building. Why is depth important? Depth gives us a couple of things: it gives the building thickness, which implies prestige and quality (think of the bodywork on a Rolls – it always looks about three foot thick); and depth gives the building weight – the building looks heavier and more likely to stay standing.

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