85 Digbeth High Street

25 10 2007

85 DigbethDigbeth is full of wonderful buildings, but there is a common idea that you have to go into the backstreets and hidden alleyways to really discover them. The truth is, you’ve just got to look hard. There are relatively few buildings on Digbeth High Street that really stand out as you drive past them; the Custard Factory is the main one. However, look closely at the roof line of the street and this building stands out. It’s only a small building. In fact, it’s tiny. Only two floors in height and probably only 12 feet wide. This could not have been an operational building.

The site had changed a lot before this was built. It was home to a William Lomax who was an inventor of farming equipment. It was also the site of a coach building company. 85 Digbeth High Street was built around 1860 and no one knows who designed it. However, whoever did design it, was quite clever. This tower broke the monotony of the facades using the least valuable space possible. This was an entrance tower, as seen by the large entrance arch at the base. It was built by Bonser & Co, a firm of iron merchants. This firm obviously wanted to stand out on the street.

The tower comprises of a variety of interesting curved elements. On the ground floor is a semi-circular arch above the entrance. One the first floor is a segmental arch above a split window area, although it is unknown whether glass was ever used here. There is also a slight upward curve on the steeply pitched roof which terminates in a set of short iron railings. The tower has a Gothic appeal mixed with a Classical touch which is seen in the pillar in the window space and the detailing in the ground floor arch. Set between the window pillar and the segmental arch on the top floor is an engraving of a crown. The writing in the bands across the tower has slowly been eroded away through human intervention and the weather. Above the segmental arch it did originally say ‘IRON & STEEL’ although this has been completely lost.

All in all, this building is special in it’s own small form. It needs a clean and I would like to see the lettering added back onto it. The panels that are blocking the window area on the first floor should also be removed. However, this building would not have any real use in the modern society. It is just a monument. It is too small to be an office or residential properties. I understand that recently, this and the building next door were turned into a vintage clothing store. I also understand that some of the details on the ground floor were painted bright yellow. This might now fit into the area but it reflect’s the architects idea of making the tower stand out when it was built and as Digbeth and the Irish Quarter witness their greatest construction renaissance for over 100 years, this tower should keep on making itself known.

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The George & Dragon

24 10 2007

George & DragonFor the first time, I’ll venture into one of most historic areas of Birmingham; the Jewellery Quarter. The Jewellery Quarter is undoubtedly one of the greatest assets to the city with enormous tourism potential. Despite being so close to the city centre, it feels very detached and takes walking down into some sort of a valley and past old empty warehouses to really get there. But when you are there, you find some true gems. Of course, many of you may have noticed that we are not the only ones to recognise the potential of the area. Look around now, and you’ll notice the large number of ‘For sale’, ‘To let’ and ‘SOLD’ signs on the old buildings. Enormous redevelopment schemes have been proposed to provide vast numbers of residential properties and commercial units. The Jewellery Quarter is undergoing a vast regeneration. But despite this, many people in Birmingham fail to know the Jewellery Quarter exits. This is a place that claims to have the highest concentration of professional jewellers in Europe. And in my eyes, this is the place with some of the most spectacular jewels in Birmingham’s crown.

One of these jewels is the George & Dragon public house. Now, it’s setting is hardly the most vibrant of places. I discovered it by walking along Legge Lane, which is a sight for sore eyes. The roads are quiet, there are no people about, and the only noise is that of the city centre or of the wind rustling through the vegetation growing of the roofs of derelict workshops. So, when I set eyes upon this pub, I realised it was succumbing to the fate of so many pubs in city. The ground floor windows and doors are boarded up and the windows on the upper floors have been smashed or partially boarded up – although I was surprised to find some of the larger windows intact. It was a terrible site when considering the history of the building.

A close look at the building shows that this edifice had undergone many extensions in it’s time. The corner of the building at Pope Street/ Albion Street lacks detail. The sash windows are set in rather plain brick work. This led me to believe that it was pre-Victorian, and my research agrees with me. This corner was built around 1820, though the detail is not known for certain. The corner here is chamfered at the ground floor and an overhang above it. The alignment of the windows gives the impression that there are three floors.

Moving along Albion Street, and the brick work changes to a lighter combination. Something else changes too – the alignment of the windows. There now appears to only be two floors. Another thing about the windows is the size and detail that they are set within. The three windows on the upper floor consist of two long windows, topped with arches. Set between these is an oriel window, decorated in a Gothic revival architecture. Although, this deteriorating, which is expected as the wood has not been replaced since construction. On the Carver Street/ Albion Street junction is a rounded corner with stucco panelling. This curvature is reflected in the roof line. The Carver Street elevation features yet another oriel window, albeit in better condition than the other. Also in the Gothic revival architecture, is the ground floor elevation. It is obvious from the exposed wood that around the doors were wooden columns holding up the rest of the door frame. These have since been removed. This section of the building was built between 1860-1870. The architect is unknown. It can be seen that during the construction of this part, the rest of the building was refurbished and altered. This is seen through the roofline which is supported by paired brackets.

Despite this, the pub was to undergo yet another extension, just on a smaller scale. It is this extension that really caught my eye, too. The extension is on the Carver Street side and is only one storey in height. To me, this doesn’t look useful at all and only appears to have been constructed using the profits of the pub owner. It is just a fancy entrance to the back of the pub. But despite this talk, I love it. In the centre of the extension is a deepset entrance under an arch. This is a diluted form of classical architecture, and in my previous blog post, I noted the revival of classical architecture in a certain time period – the 1920s and 1930s. Can you guess when this extension was built? Yes, the 1920s-30s period. It was designed by James and Lister Lea and completed in 1922.

So, here stands the pub looking pretty dreary. It is Grade II listed but I can see most of the building being demolished in the future, leaving the façades to be incorporated into a modern extension. This seems to be a common practice in these times. Facadism is actually frowned upon by many conservation groups but it really is necessary if the existing structure is economically unsustainable. But there must be a line drawn between making the façade a fundamental part of the building and just incorporating a façade into a building for the hell of it (ie. Orion Building). I just hope, that no one allows this pub to fall down or be demolished completely. With such architectural diversity and history, it is a gem and one that needs some polishing in the Jewellery Quarter crown.





The West Midlands Fire Service HQ

23 10 2007

Fire HQ towerWhilst still providing an elaborate and dramatic frontage over Lancaster Circus, this building is slowly being hidden from view by modern development. The area is fast becoming one of the most prominent sites in Birmingham with it’s proximity to Aston University and the Children’s Hospital. On the other side of the flyover is a 0.8 acre site currently for sale advertised as being good for a mixed-use highrise development. Aston University are also planning to empty their wallets by demolishing three red brick student flat towers – Dalton, Lawrence and Stafford towers. They will be replacing these with three, shorter, yet more-imposing towers with more flats. There has been talk of a tower at the Lancaster Circus office for Birmingham City Council too. But stuck in the middle of this, is the West Midlands Fire HQ.

The building is incredibly large. Look at it from the front and you can tell it’s big. The entrance tower, which looks bigger than it actually is, is perfectly situated on the corner of the site to make itself known from the city centre. The lightly coloured stone facades mark a contrast to the deep red terracotta brick buildings that make up the Steelhouse Lane conservation area. The colour of the construction material makes it blindingly obvious, to those who know, when this was built. OK, so there’s a foundation stone with a nicely engraved plaque at the base of the tower, but from just reading the stone on the facade alone, you can tell that this is a building design during the 1920s and 1930s. How can I tell? Well, take a look at the Hall of Memory: Portland stone, classical architecture. Another example? OK, Baskerville House: Portland stone, classical architecture. One more example? Birmingham Municipal Bank on Broad Street: Portland stone, classical architecture. All those were built during the 1920s or 30s.

Fire HQ sideLike those building, the fire HQ is quite clearly of classical architecture with the influence of Victorian tastes. The tower is topped with a decorative sheltered platform. Close inspection reveals detailed balustrades, excessive use of string coursing and, of course, decorative columns. It is shame then that the only compliment this tower receives is a set of antennas on the roof. At the base of the tower is a perfect arch, topped with a stone tablet with the letters PBB. Although it also looks like HBB, BBB, HBR. Make of it what you will, either way, I don’t have a clue what it stands for, so I’d be very grateful if someone could enlighten me there. It is after peering through the green iron gates that you realise that the building is ‘hollow’, containing a courtyard within it’s centre. At present, it is being used as a car park but in earlier days, it was actually used for training and preparation. This is seen by the fire tower, which too looks like it has been designed to perfect detail. However, the architecture of the facades lining the courtyard are not so grand and inspiring as those on the outside. Fronting Lancaster Circus is the main exit for the fire engines, although the engines have since been removed and the building is used just for offices now. With all shutter doors raised, a colonnade effect is produced. Above this are the setback offices.

When walking around the other sides of the building, the character of the building changes as you drift from a structure that is covered in Portland stone to a structure that is consists mainly of brick. It makes you wonder if there were initial designs which show the station completely covered in Portland stone, but the cost of such a feat would have prohibited such extensive use. To the rear, the building takes on quite a normal image. The stone is used less, only for window frames and sting coursing. If your lucky, you might even get a small section of the facade covered in stone too. But the brick is overwhelming and is marked with rows of traditional sash windows. Look above the top floor and you notice rows of chimneys set on top of a tiled pitched roof. There is a lot about this building that is traditional and it makes you grateful that this did not succumb to fate of not just the bombers, but of the 1960s planners. And yet even more recently, the ‘refurbishers’. Yes, this crazy crew seem to like the idea of removing traditional sash windows and replacing them with cheap, ghastly-looking uPVC windows. Imagine this building lined with uPVC!

Fire towerAnd yet even at this point, I still have not given you that history lesson that I can hear you all craving for. Well, to be honest, I know very little about the history of the building. I don’t know the architect, I estimate it was finished in 1936, though I can’t be sure, I really don’t know much at all. And I refer back to the foundation stone. The stone which was laid on 6th March, 1934 by Alderman J.B. Burman J.P.. J.B. Burman was chairman of the Fire Brigade sub-committee as well as the Watch committee. It is at this point that the writing becomes difficult to read, not least because of years of erosion, wear and pollution accumulation, but also because of the plain inconvenience of the engravers skill.

And I refer back to first point – the area is changing. Soon, the fire HQ is to become a victim of this. It is not listed. I don’t think it is even locally listed – when it really should be. But what could sound the death knell is the fact that West Midlands Fire Service is currently constructing a large, modern office facility on the former Co-op dairy site. Designed by Birmingham-based Kinetic AIU, the building will become the new headquarters for the fire service when it opens in 2009. Complete with modern offices, it will also house a ‘safety village’ for training. What will become of the fire station? Well, luckily, all current initial plans have included the retention of the building. Kinetic AIU have released initial ideas showing a 40 storey skyscraper slapbang in the middle of the courtyard. Thinking about it, you cannot believe it as being possible but remember that this building is huge. Take a look on Google Earth and you will see it could quite easily fit a skyscraper in there. Kinetic are not the only group to show off their plans. Broadway Malayan, with offices on Edmund Street, have shown a model of a highrise office tower with a sloping roof. This also goes in the courtyard. Whilst there is no news on any potential developers, we are hearing murmurings of interest from Aston University. Is the university set to delve a little more deeper into their pockets?

But what has actually struck me is that, after years of quarrelling between the architects and the conservationists who want to protect buildings, it seems that the two may have developed a partnership. 10 years ago, we would expect to see this building being demolished if a skyscraper were to be proposed on site. Of course, even with the current plans, the NIMBYs will be out in force arguing that there is an obsession to build high and that the skyscraper will not respect the architecture of the structure. But I think they’re wrong here. The purpose of the design of the fire station was to be grand and to appear big, so why can’t we building something in the middle of it that shows off the attitude of the architect to the design? Just do one thing though, keep this building and keep it as a reminder of what the area looked like before the construction boom changed the image of the area.

Oh, and I’m back! 🙂