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.

Rotunda Rotunda!

6 05 2007

Rotunda from BullringThe Rotunda. It remains as a relic of a period that Birmingham, on a whole, would want to forget. The 1960s never did Birmingham much favours. It was an unfortunate time for Birmingham, where the Victorian grandeur was lost as a result of night bombing by the Luftwaffe and the expiration of land leases. Developers grabbed the bull by the horns and immediately we saw some of our greatest architectural edifices feel the full force of the wrecking ball.

The Rotunda is one of the products of this era. James A. Roberts designed it originally to be just 12 storeys, when he was designing this phase of the Bull Ring. But knowing that it would look so stumpy, he cranked it up to 25 storeys and 81 metres. It bucked the architectural trend of the time, breaking away from square and other unimpressive forms. And essentially, this was unimpressive too. This led to it being called a ‘dead building, or in other words, a failure to perform the purpose it was built for: providing high quality offices for companies.

As a result of it’s cylindrical form, it was difficult to create suitable floor plates that enable an attractive office working space. Whilst the adjacent Bull Ring disappeared into the murky depths of hate and architectural mishaps, The Rotunda grew as a friend to the market traders who sold their wares beneath the presence of the tower.

The 1980s were to be a promising decade for Birmingham. Plans to get Brum back on track and on par with the rest of the UK were aired and a period of change and prosperity were promised for the people of Birmingham. Brindleyplace was spawned, the ICC began its arduous construction journey and a small investment group called LET were given the chance to completely reshape the Bull Ring. They published plan after plan, each time reshaping the Bull Ring’s design. But they had lost on the first hurdle with one simple comment about their design; “a huge aircraft-carrier settled on the streetscape of the city”. It is clear that this was all in good faith by the architects but the people saw it differently and LET produced nothing.

But there was another piece of the jigsaw which led to LET’s downfall in producing a widely attractive masterplan; the loss of the Rotunda. LET were from Edinburgh and London so they obviously had no knowledge of Birmingham. They had not known of the love now surrounding the cherished Rotunda despite its failures. So, the planned demolition of the building and replacing it with a mighty copy of the Chrysler Building of New York did not go down lightly.

The 1990s came and went with no movement. The Bull Ring further lost appeal and it was finally in the late 1990s that serious plans to raze it to the ground were aired and actually liked. Work began in 1999 for the turn of the millennium. What the hell got the plans going? Well, the current Bull Ring now had no fans at all. It failed miserably; architecturally and through the layout. The concept was good but that was it. They went about it the wrong way. But that wasn’t the reason – it was the fact the Rotunda remained.

The Rotunda by now had developed the fame as being the Sentinel of New Street. Though, the building itself was now witnessing an image problem. The cladding was developing a dirty appearance and it was decided something needed to be done.

In rolled Manchester-based Urban Splash. They had an excellent track record with developments. They had revitalised buildings and knew what it needed. It all looked promising and it was further enhanced by the granting of Grade II listing status to the building, though this may have made the developers rather unhappy making their plans more restricted. They commissioned local architects Glenn Howells for the development who, with their knowledge of Brummie love for the building, drew up the plan to refurbish the building into a residential monolith.

The building was to have new windows – floor to ceiling height. LED advert boards decorating the top. And a completely new cladding scheme – not completely white but with a tint of green.

Work began after the completion of the Bull Ring and the apartments were put on sale, only to be completely sold within 3 hours. This best shows the love and iconicity this building has.

Exterior work is still being done but the cladding and windows have been fitted. The LED boards have been installed and feature a rather mysterious picture of an eye as well as the adverts for Glenn Howells. It looks fresh and clean. All that is left to do is to fit the interior and in 2008 we will see this building complete, dominating the city in a way it never has.

A small poem engraved into the wall of the Bullring Shopping Centre best sums the building up which now towers over the newly created Rotunda Square:


Some wanted you round,

Some wanted you square,

Still there.