Beneath Moat Lane car park

15 05 2007

Moat Lane car parkI’m sure many of you who travel into the city centre journey by car, and that obviously means you need a car park. Well, if you use Moat Lane car park (next to the Wholesale Markets), then you’re driving onto a little bit of history. In fact, you’re driving onto the birthplace of Birmingham.

I’m not talking about the car park, that is a 1960s/70s structure, but the site harbours a history which spans back nearly 1,000 years, for this is the site of the manor house of the de Birmingham family who established Birmingham as a town.

It is a little known fact but on this was (partly) the site of moated manor house in which the de Birminghams lived. It survived up until 1816 when it was in a terrible state. By now, Birmingham was buzzing with the Bull Ring and industry was taking off. St Martins loomed over it and Digbeth was developing rapidly. The house was bought by the Birmingham Street Commissioners who immediately filled in the moat and demolished the house. The cleared site was a prime retail point, being so close to the Bull Ring. It seems little consideration had been taken towards the site which had been the centre point of Birmingham for 800 years. From this site, Peter de Birmingham obtained a charter for King Henry II for the right to hold a market in the town in the 1100’s. The most influential family in Birmingham lived on this site for generations. But it seems the time had come for it to go.

Markets were springing up all over the town now. Dale End and Carrs Lane was home to a cornmarket, New Street had a cattle markets and Colmore Row had a mixed market too. Farm animals roamed the streets, which, whilst made it quite a vibrant place to be in, also made it quite claustrophobic and unhygienic. Imagine walking along New Street today with two cows trotting past you. Not exactly what you want, eh?

So Birmingham was becoming out of control with the market situation and it was decided that one giant market needed to be built in Birmingham to clear up the streets. Smithfield was the place to be and in 1817, Smithfield market opened to the masses. A cattle and horse market was established on site and the sheep and pig market, which was held on New Street, was moved to the new market through an act of parliament.

The market expanded in 1883 when a wholesale vegetable market opened there. The pig market in Smithfield was moved to a new site on Montague Street in 1897 and the cattle market followed in 1898. The vegetable market took over the market by 1900 as a result of the decline in popularity in live meat. This ultimately lead to the downfall of the market as the vegetable market never took off.

In the 1960s, the market was bought by the council for the construction of the Inner Ring Road. It was demolished and the site turned into the car park and wholesale markets.

The lease for the wholesale market is to expire in 2009, and plans for its relocation are being considered to an out-of-town site. This will open amazing opportunities to excavate the site for any remains of the building. The Parkinson Masterplan of how the city centre should develop in the future outlined that the remains should not be destroyed but should removed and reconstructed in the Eastside by Millennium Point to be transformed into a tourist attraction. However, I hold little hope there will be much to salvage from the site as a result of so much excavations and construction work.

Either way, whenever you do drive past or onto this site, or if you sell something at a car boot sale on the markets, just remember the history you’re stepping on.

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Big Top: Birmingham’s first real shopping centre

14 05 2007

Big TopBig Top is probably the most overlooked building in Birmingham despite being in the most strategic of all locations in the whole of the city. There are a variety of reasons for this. The main one being that its architecture is so damn boring and dull that nobody takes time to look and understand it. Another is more simple: it is adorned in shop frontages and a deteriorating concrete canopy.

Still can’t work out where it is? Well, it is at the junction of New Street and the High Street, behind the buildings that front Corporation Street. The majority of the building is low rise reaching no more than two or three storeys, though there is a large office block on top called City Centre House. When completed, it was Birmingham’s tallest office block – another fact about this place that is very much overlooked.

Big Top was very much a product of post war regeneration. It’s architecture screams that at you. The site was heavily bombed in the war and was pretty much completely wiped out with the only remnants being foundations and a few portions of Victorian façades. This prompted a need for a development here, which is unusual for postwar as most development during this period actually consisted of demolishing a perfectly fine building, and replacing it with a sod ugly one.

The site was cleared almost immediately after the war and was used as a car park for visitors to the Bull Ring coming along New Street. It was a massive site, and a prime plot for development. Times passed slowly still and institutions came and went. The site was the scene of a brutal death when a circus performer, who was displaying an array of animals to a crowd on the site, was mauled to death by a tiger. This was in front of a large crowd and many newspapers of the time described as ‘a sight no one deserves to see, not even the most of wicked’.

The council finally decided that the time was now to build something and as shopping was a most popular past time in the area, a shopping precinct was decided. This was to be Birmingham’s first shopping centre (some even claim that it was the country’s first of its type). Demand for offices was also on the increase and as the old rule goes, supply must exceed demand.

Construction commenced in the mid-1950s and was completed in 1959. The name was given in memory of the circus that set up on site during the period before. ‘Big Top’ is the name given to a tent which houses an entire circus within it. This form of structure was last used in 1958 for safety reasons. The offices were snapped up almost immediately as a result of their location and quality. It was commented as one of the most modern buildings in the city. The shopping centre flourished with visitors who enjoyed a sheltered walk through the arcades admiring the products displayed in the shop windows.

Though, the construction of the new Bull Ring Shopping Centre in the 1960s resulted in a decline of visitors who were more interested in the more modern development with a wider variety of stores.

Big Top, began to decline rapidly during the 1970s. From the outside, on New Street and the High Street, everything looked rosy. But, inside, the arcades were empty, the lighting dingy, flooring peeling, leeks from the roofs and the offices were beginning to empty. It didn’t appeal to people anymore and by the 80s it was in a very sorry state. Shopping was no longer a gay experiences in what may as well be a mining shaft. The ventilation had clogged with dust leaving a musty smell in the air to whoever ventured through the arcades.

What was worse, was that some of the larger shop plots were not actual selling and remained vacant. The complicated floorplans and shape of the plots made them unattractive.

Big Top remains today. The whole site is up for sale and it still looks rosy from New Street and the High Street with big store names such as JJB, Topshop and Primark holding plots. But more recently, the Post Office, one of the largest in the city, shut down. It is easy to see why too. It was an absolute hassle to tidy and organise. To enter, you walked down steps to the main floor and immediately you were in the depths of birthday cards and fluffy pencils. The cashier area was always busy and the narrow area in which it was situated made queueing uncomfortable.

WH Smith still remains and has done for years. It is probably the largest shop in the building. The main floor with all the books and stationary is massive though is broken up by a mysterious wall which digs into the store and by a row of columns, though that does not form the basis of any major complaint. The ground floor where all the magazines are sold is of an unusual plate. There are raised surfaces everywhere and the overall feeling is claustrophobic.

Shopping here is really not a worthwhile experience. Nobody, anymore, says “Ooh, I’m off to Big Top to do a spot of shopping”. It is no longer an actual building, it is just an existing structure that imposes upon the street scape. The arcades are very dark and rely upon light from the shop windows and mysterious entrances for any real assistance for elderly people. It is a security nightmare too. It is notorious for thieves who run out of shops through the walkways, quickly losing security guards.

Architecturally, it is nothing. It is a catastrophe. How on Earth can someone expect the public to shop somewhere where there is no natural light or aesthetic features? But I do find the office building interesting. It is boring but it is bright as well. The designs is also quite nice in that there is more to it than square windows and concrete frames. There are little knobs sticking out of the wall and interesting features around the top. But as I said earlier, it is just there. It is not something someone would notice and began to ponder over. It simply fills a space in the skyline.

So, lets just hope that the current ‘For Sale’ sign indicates that someone could have the balls to build something more imposing and more interesting. It is a strategic plot and it needs realising. But in the meantime, I don’t think you’re going to go shopping there willingly.





National Westminster House

13 05 2007

Nat West HouseNational Westminster House is an odd building in so many ways. First of all, it’s in a conservation area. Why? Well, I don’t know as it is probably the youngest building and tallest building in the area. It doesn’t fit in to the area at all in terms of materials, design and everything else to be honest.

But despite this, it is secretly loved by many. It is dark, grim, dull but imposing and it makes a much needed mark on the skyline. Without it, there would be a large space in the centre of the skyline, effectively forming two clusters. It’s valuable.

Plus, it’s an interesting feature when you’re relaxing in Victoria Square. It’s better than watching lustful couples happily smooching away at the feet of The River fountain. It maybe dark but its not sinister.

So it saddens me to hear that our little tower is set to be demolished by British Land who recently purchased it. They are to replace it with an even taller tower (some say over 100 metres) which, as British Land are renowned for, will be of the highest quality. Even the Civic Society are showing their nicer side saying they will support it if it is set back and of the highest quality.

Sorry for the shortness of this post but time really is slim today.





Baskerville House: Testament to one man’s great ambitions

12 05 2007

Baskerville HouseBaskerville House is overlooked by many because it holds no real wow factor to the general public. However, it’s history is long and winding and if the public knew the intentions for the area, including this building, then I can guarantee that 99% will be fascinated.

The area of land Baskerville House is perched was originally a little higher than it is now and was known as Easy Hill. Back in the1700s, Broad Street was nothing more than a country track and there area was nowhere near as built up as it is now. On this hill was a house owned by John Baskerville, one of the most important men in printing. It was described as an ugly edifice and when the Priestly Riots took held of Birmingham, the house was the scene of looting and mayhem.

When Baskerville passed away, he was buried near his home on Easy Hill. However, several decades later, the tomb had to be moved for the construction of a canal that still runs behind the building today. It is said that when workers were preparing to move a section of the tomb, it cracked open revealing the corpse of Baskerville. This is possible, but it most likely situation was that they opened it up. Nevertheless, they found the body to be in almost immaculate condition considering the time he had been buried. So fascinated were scientists and the public, that the body was even put on display for several weeks, attracting large crowds.

The church began to object to the exhibition of the body and it was decided to remove the body from public view. It was stored in a warehouse and then secretly buried in a crypt in Christ Church next to the Council House with several other bodies. It was again moved to Warstone Lane Cemetery where it remains today.

As Birmingham developed in the 1800s into an industrial town, Easy Hill quickly became an industrial centre due to the vast array of canals that passed near the area. Broad Street developed into an established street with various other streets branching off it. Baskerville’s house was demolished and a factory built on top. Here it remained until the turning of the 20th century when industry began to decline.

The area became the focus of the a book by William Haywood, an architect, called “The Development of Birmingham” which was published in 1918. Plans presented in the book were New Street station development plans and plans for a People’s Hall. His most ambitious plans were for this site in particular which included the complete demolition and clearance of the area to make way for the construction of large municipal buildings.

The plans looked at filling in or realigning the canal to the rear and constructing 6 buildings around a square courtyard (two per side with one side completely free). Baskerville House was one of the buildings that formed this conglomerate. It was to be joined at the rear via a link bridge to another building of similar design. The original plans for the centre of the courtyard were a large column with a statue on top surrounding by a giant park or car park. This was modified in the 1930s and a giant monolithical highrise building of 30 storeys was proposed. This was not taken to well and it was soon dropped, reverting back to the column. To the south, a large park or square was proposed with a meeting venue at one end and a memorial at the other to the soldiers of World War I. This memorial came to be the Hall of Memory and the overall park became Centenary Square.

Baskerville House was completed in 1938 and the entire development was expected to take another 10-20 years to complete as building it in one giant phase would be a massive undertaking and possibly too expensive. The rear of Baskerville House was constructed of brick with the intention of being temporary so that it could be demolished when the next building will be constructed.

World War II delayed the project severely and it was agreed that construction should recommence after the war. However, when the war ended, municipal buildings had fallen out of favour and the plans were dropped. The park was still built, as was the memorial however nothing else came to fruition. Over the next 30 years, the area developed with the construction of a multistorey car park, student flats, four highrise tower blocks, Civic gardens, The Rep theatre and more recently, the International Convention Centre with Symphony Hall. If the plans are to be resuscitated, then all the buildings outlined would need to be demolished – obviously meaning that it will never happen.

Baskerville House therefore remains as the only standing structure in a visionary jigsaw puzzle thought up by an architect who should have had more international respect. The actual architect of Baskerville House was T. Cecil Howitt of Nottingham.

Over the years the building has had hard times. It has fallen into decay many times, it has been emptied and it has rarely had a good clean. More recently, it was surveyed in an investigation to see if it would make a suitable venue for the new Central Library when it moves from the current site. Despite it’s sturdy looking structure (enhanced by the stone facing), it was discovered that it would not be able to withstand the weight of all the books.

It was sold by the council to developers in the 2000s who promptly drew up plans to extensively refurbish the building into Grade A offices. This meant the complete demolition of the interior (including floors) leaving just a shell, and then the complete reconstruction with the addition of a modern roof feature. The plans were approved and work began quickly. The exciting development was completed in 2006 when the sheets came down revealing a newly cleaned, modern looking structure, reworked back to its former glory.

The building is quite beautiful and it will still be overlooked by many as it does not contain any public attraction. It is imposing though and makes an impact. The mixture of architecture on Broad Street add to the need to keep the building and the Grade II listed status further enforces this. The modern addition works well as it is not so imposing that it completely detracts from the classical image of the building with it’s stone façade, large entrance columns, entrance arch and string coursing.

It is a great testament to two men, John Baskerville and William Haywood, of which we should all be proud.





Spiral Cafe, Bull Ring

11 05 2007

Spiral cafe from SelfridgesThe Spiral Cafe, built in 2005, is quite a late addition to the modern Bullring Shopping Centre which was opened to crowds in the hundreds upon thousands (the escalators felt it – I was there!) on September 4, 2003.

Designed by Marks Barfield Architects of London Eye fame, it is a simple structure that does not jump up and scream out at you, though, you are always aware of its presence. The design, resembling a shell of the coastline, is clad in bronze with glass facing both ends. The rustic texture and colour of the bronze cladding does form a contrast to the clean bricks and limestone steps surrounding it. Despite this contrast, it still fits in well to its surroundings.

The Bull Ring is an area of architectural and artistic variety, with a clear example being the Selfridges store by Future Systems. With it’s 15,000 spun aluminium discs on a blue concrete background forming an elegant and organic form, it has most-definitely become an international icon of Birmingham. Art has played a major role in the Bull Ring development with the erection of three light wands in Rotunda Square, three Cube fountains in St Martin’s Square and a large holographic mural adorning the entrance facing New Street Station.

Marks Barfield Architects’ art work here is different in that it has a purpose to it. It is interactive and useful. What I find most intriguing about it are the impressions of scale you receive from when looking at it externally and then entering it. From the outside, it appears so small that it seems impossible for any form of institution to be capable of working from there. However, when you enter the edifice, the area seems so much larger and it is quite impressive.

The storage facility is held in a small extruded form of the shell shape to the rear which is barely noticeable. You only see it unless you actually go looking for it. It, itself, is clad in bronze. In fact, the very existence and use of the bronze resulted in the building receiving a Copper Award.

And rightly so as the structure is impressive on a small scale. I feel that it is not rightly appreciated or rightly approached but it is in the perfect location. So, go and sit down under the shell, enjoy a cup of coffee with a snack to bite and relax as you admire the views over east Birmingham.





Sutton Coldfield Town Hall: A relic of municipality in a royal borough

9 05 2007

Sutton town hall facadeSutton Coldfield is probably one of the most unique of Birmingham’s suburbs in that it seems so much like a separate entity to Birmingham. Well, up until 1974, it was. Sutton Town Hall is a beautiful structure standing as a reminder to all lifelong residents of Sutton Coldfield that they once governed themselves.

Sutton Coldfield is known still, despite being incorporated into the City of Birmingham, as the Royal Borough of Sutton Coldfield. It’s history is certainly connected to the monarchy through land purchases. Wooded areas in Sutton have fluctuated between Chase and Forest with the name Forest being given to those owned by the Royal Family. This is largely forgotten now and most of the wooded areas have either been destroyed through the ever expanding area or protected in the vast expanses of the time capsule that is Sutton Park, the largest urban nature reserve in Europe.

Sutton Clock towerSutton Coldfield really grew in the 19th Century. The advent of the railways played such a major role in the prosperity of the town (though Bishop Vesey’s activities as Bishop of Exeter were also a key factor in the prosperity of the town) permitting industries to establish in the area. Sutton Coldfield followed the example of Birmingham in industry, undertaking various manufacturing processes – however, it was not rewarded with that of Birmingham which expanded absorbing various other boroughs and towns within it’s vicinity.

Sutton Hall facadeThe town was obviously proud to be part of the railway culture. It constructed a major railway station with ornate decorations. To make sure all visitors felt welcomed in the town, a grand hotel was constructed on a small right of land rising above the train station. The Royal Hotel, again reflecting the royal history of the town, opened in 1865 and immediately finances became a major problem. This is understandable when you look at the architecture. The railway station in Sutton was small compared to many others and the hotel was huge – obviously expecting a huge flow of visitors. They splashed out on the architectural features and internal decor, ignoring the fact that this was a make or break situation. As times passed, it became clear it was going to break and in 1895, it closed. For a short time the building was occupied by the Sutton Coldfield Sanatorium but in December 1901 was sold for £9,000 to the Sutton Corporation to serve as Council Offices.

The Sutton Corporation took the opportunity to refurbish the building and extend it. The fire headquarters opened first and a few months later in 1906, the main offices opened to a major ceremony consisting of performances for various local artists. It was undoubtedly a major highlight in the Sutton Corporation’s history.

1974 spelled an end of an era for Sutton Coldfield as it was moved into the newly created West Midlands Metropolitan County and became a part of the City of Birmingham. Many residents opposed this in the worry that they would lose their identity. This they may have lost and Sutton did lose a lot of light as a result of Birmingham’s focus of investment on the city centre and not on the suburbs – Sutton is still feeling the effects and is only just starting to pick up in the last few years.

The Sutton Corporation disappeared and the hall lost all use as offices. A section was used for neighbourhood offices, and still does today, but there was still a huge portion of the building requiring maintenance and general TLC. Well, it was reverted back to an old usage that it had been once before; a theatre. Between World War I and World War II, it was used as a theatre for the decommissioned soldiers and proved successful until its later years.

The town hall now serves as a theatre, social function venue, wedding venue and as neighbourhood offices for the Sutton Coldfield parliamentary constituency and for the four wards which it is associated with. Productions hosted by the town hall include those by the two local selective grammar schools; Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School and Sutton Coldfield Girls’ Grammar School.

Architecturally, this building does appear a bit of a mess from the front. It is clear to distinguish the 1906 from the original hotel. But upon close analysis, a certain beauty can be taken from the building. The windows are large and mismatched creating an interesting pattern on the façade. The clock tower is beautiful and to think that it was once used as a fire tower for the fire headquarters sounds like a crime! The building does not appear as a council building at all, but it does appear to be of a municipal nature.

Features which may interest the least-interested of visitors include the retention of the Sutton Coldfield Coat of Arms above the entrance. The arms have been absorbed into the Birmingham Coat of Arms but they were not removed from the building. They are engraved into stone and are losing the defined edges after years of wear.

The building should remain to make a positive impact on the landscape and now stands as one of three points on the skyline of Sutton Coldfield – Holy Trinity Church, Sutton Town Hall and Sutton Coldfield television mast. I recommend you take a visit to this building, especially if a production is to be unveiled there. The interior décor is intricate to say the least – yet another indication of Sutton’s royal heritage?





Blakesley Hall

8 05 2007

Blakesley Hall from the sideBlakesley Hall is not very striking when you drive past it, though it is difficult to see it when it is behind 9 foot tall hedgerows. The façade is synonymous with Tudor housing and the rickety look really does set it apart from the fake frontages of many suburban semi-detached houses.

The building is in a suburban setting amongst bungalows and semi-detached houses along a long winding road. Look out the back window of the hall and you can just catch the glimpses of three tower blocks which grace the street scape of the area of Stechford along its borders with Sheldon.

Blakesley Hall from the frontRecords tell us little about the construction of the building. We just know that was built in 1590 by a prominent landowner in Yardley, when it was in Worcestershire, called Richard Smalbroke. We cannot expect any more as there was no such thing as planning laws in those days. It was also commonplace for the building to be designed as it was being built and the commissioning of an architect was barely heard of, especially for a farming family like the Smalbrokes.

The building remained s a farmer’s manor house for several centuries afterwards and not a great deal happened to the building as far as we know. In 1935, it was purchased by the Corporation and turned into a museum beginning with the renovation of the parlour. Period features were installed including furniture.

World War II proved near disastrous for the building. A bomb plunged through the ceiling damaging many of the original roof beams and smashing tiles on the roof. It continued through the first floor and crashed through the floor causing it to dislodge beams in the floor there resulting in a twisting action taking place – the result of which remains to this day. It finally landed on the ground floor and rested without explosion. It was removed and deactivated saving the house from certain total destruction if it had exploded. BM&AG still describe the event as a miracle.

The house has undergone few changes since. Of course it needed to be repaired by the bomb damage, and as mentioned earlier, some parts could not be rectified such as the wonky flooring on the first floor hall way. In 2002, the museum came into some money and they took the opportunity to sort out some maintenance problems as well as totally re-landscape the grounds, construct a car park for visitors and a visitors centre which features a gallery (which has hosted various images including old photographs of Yardley, and more recently, a timeline of the history of Blakesley Hall through photographs and engravings) and a tea room which laps over into the gardens. An adjacent barn building has also been renovated for use as an educational facility.

The money was spent wisely and the image of the building has improved substantially. The building is a fascinating relic which deserves to preserved. Amongst artefacts unveiled in the grounds and within the house itself include coins, bottle necks, 400 year old wall paintings which had remained hidden behind boards for hundreds of years and a petrified cat which now hangs on display within the house (apparently it was used to scare off evil spirits who would come to the house).

I believe that the presentation of the house is top notch in the way that there is ample space to move around the house whilst some rooms are sectioned off so that you cannot touch them. Along the way there are laminated notes to give you interesting information on the house and similar houses in general.

Architecturally, this building is a disaster. But one has to pay respects to the times when it was built and I can’t imagine anyone thinking this is ugly. I agree, some aspects such as the gables do appear to be precarious as they rest on large oak beams forming a cantilever above the ground lounge. The angles and dimensions do seem quite dangerous but think about it, this building has survived 400+ years… what does that tell you?

So as a Brummie, I would recommend this to all visitors and Brummies in general. It is amazing to think that things like this are on your doorstep. So get on down there, it’s free and enjoy the architecture, history and then finally a refreshing cup of tea in the gardens!