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! 🙂





Dale End: Architectural vandalism

22 05 2007

Dale EndMany will know Dale End, especially the younger generations of today as it is the home of the Carling Academy, a popular haunt for many teenagers hoping to see some of today’s most popular bands. Go back 800 years and this was a popular site for the town too, who hoped to be accepted into a monumental priory dedicated to St Thomas.

Dale End is deep rooted in religious history. A little known fact about the site is the St Thomas Priory that occupied it for several hundred years. It was dissolved under the Tudor reign in 1536 and the buildings were destroyed in 1547. Prosperity here rapidly declined. There was no businesses wishing to set up on site and for 150 years, the site was littered with debris from the demolished priory.  Nothing is known of the architecture of the priory but as priories from long ago appear, it must have  been on a grand and impressive scale with brilliant architecture which we would no longer be able to achieve often in today’s society. It takes the most ambitious and those who have a bit of money to splash to really undertake something like this – and sometimes it fails such as the Millennium Dome.

It took John Pemberton to finally do something about the site who bought it in 1700. John Pemberton developed the site around Old Square and created a residential district there. The affluence in the area took off. In the 1700s, the Barley Market moved from the Bullring area to the junction of Bull Street and Dale End. In 1763, Sampson Lloyd and John Taylor established a private banking business known as Taylors & Lloyds on the site which would develop into Lloyds Bank. Old Square quickly became the hottest place in town for the rich. The houses were villas with bay windows and were two stories in height. They sat in rows to the square

Old Square was severely affected by the construction of Corporation Street beginning in 1873. The layout was completely rearranged but with it came benefits. New, grand buildings were constructed such as the impressive Grand Theatre. The architecture of the facade of the theatre was reminiscent of the theatre buildings being constructed in Prague which have now become international icons.

The actual site of Dale End was more of a backwater to the affluence and vibrancy being witnessed in Old Square. By the Victorian times, Birmingham’s centre was split into several parishes which later became wards for the council. Each of these had a church, of which many still remain such as St Martins, St Philips, St Pauls and St Thomas’ (though it is now no longer a church and more a monument). Dale End was the location of one of the churches – St Peters. It was described as a noble edifice and not much more. Connecting Dale End to Old Square was Lower Priory which was fronted by a chemical works and many public houses and hotels. Intermingled with all this was a conglomerate of residential properties which developed into slums.

Dale End needed a miracle if it were to rekindle the prosperity of before. That miracle (though it was a tragic one at that) in the form of World War II. Before the war, the site had become a commercial location with shops establishing themselves either side. However, it still retained an air of poverty and people still ignored the site in favour of Corporation Street and the Bullring. So, in came war and the Germans bombed Dale End to an oblivion. The entire street was cleared by the bombs and it experienced some of the worst damage in the city centre.

This heavy destruction set it up for post war development and it didn’t take long. First of all came the inner ring road. This bounded the site at the east and to the north through the construction of the Priory Queensway. One of the biggest acts of architectural vandalism was witnessed in the construction of the queensway – the demolition of the Grand Theatre. Of course it was met with tears and opposition but according to the ‘great’ Manzoni, it was had to go. Following this, in came the next blow – the expiration of leases for buildings on Corporation Street. This presented developers with an opportunity to grasp their own piece of business on the street.

So with these combined factors, Dale End was itself subject to postwar development and this came in the form of Sir Frederick Gibberd. He designed a brand new shopping precinct in the city which began construction in 1964. It was completed and opened in 1966. This Brutalist monster is there today. The concrete facade is featureless with the exception of natures additions of grime and stray vegetation growing in the cracks appearing in the surface. A smell lingers over the site – not helped by the shelter over some parts and lack of air conditioning.

On the opposite side of the road came the Dale House development consisting of a 1970s redbrick multi storey car park with a highrise office structure above it. The complex also presented ground floor retail units which were snapped up by Toys R Us in more recent years.

Today the two edifices remain, and they continue to draw in a trickle of crowds though not at the scale of the early days. Toys R Us have moved from their store in the centre. This is no surprise as anyone could tell you that it was always empty and that the site was enormous. Dale House is slowly being emptied. The markets in Priory Square are slowly shutting down, mainly because of lack of business. Argos is there but deteriorating. It is a sad story.

Luckily, wonder-developers, Birmingham Alliance, have purchased the site and aim to develop it into one of the biggest developments witnessed in Birmingham since the Bull Ring (also by the same developers). Martineau Galleries is to be the second phase to Martineau Place and will feature a major mixed use conglomerate of buildings. Offices will front Corporation Street whilst a pedestrianised piazza in the centre will be the centre of the retail units. The residential units will be located above these and in a 110 metre tower which will dominate the Priory Queensway. A cultural building will front onto Moor Street.

The development will breathe much-needed life into the area and hopefully should begin construction in 2008 when the leases expire. It should be completed around 2011. What is better is that the developers acknowledge the religious history on the site through the priory and St Peter’s Church. Archaeology will play a large role in the construction of the new buildings.

So when you walk down Dale End grumbling at the site of spotty teens raving over the next big band to grace the stage at the Carling Academy, remember that this has happened for centuries and that this place has been a vibrant centre for Birmingham for centuries. The priory is reflected through names of the buildings and roads in the area but little known about so I hope you know a bit more today!





Island House

17 05 2007

Island HouseLittle is known about Island House as it is such a small and seemingly insignificant building. However, the future for this building, and the surrounding site, could not be brighter.

Island House is locally listed. That means it is not protected by the regular planning laws for listed buildings such as the likes of Birmingham Town Hall and Baskerville House, but it is protected and careful consideration to any alterations has to be taken into account by the planning department.

The origins of the building’s name is unknown too. But when you view it today, then you can certainly say that ‘Island’ is a very appropriate tag for the building. It sits in the middle of a cleared site awaiting development. The nearest structure is a wooden shed guarding the surface car park over the road.

Built in 1911, it takes on a form similar to that of the world famous Flatiron Building in New York City (though the Flatiron Building is so much more taller and older). The reason behind its shape seem a little bemusing when you take into account the site plan. It is a triangular shaped building but the site plan is nothing of the sort. Looking back over older maps, you can see that one road ran past it and that there was still land to the north.

Either way, the triangular shape creates a striking, if not small, view from Moor Street. The light stone material really does make it look elaborate compared to some of the other buildings of this time. The colour emphasises the details on the façade, no matter how unimportant they are.

It received local listing status in the 2000s following plans to redevelop the land opened up by the demolition of Masshouse Circus, which had restricted the growth of the city centre. We were lucky to not see this meet destruction during the course of Masshouse Circus’s demise. The Masshouse land was split into two phases. One phase is currently being developed with one building nearing completion already and the next set to begin by the end of this year. The other phase was loosely connected to the overall plan to move Birmingham Central Library to the Eastside on a site opposite Curzon Street Station. These plans fell through despite a striking design by the internationally renowned Richard Rogers making national headlines. As part of the plan was a residential and commercial scheme – City Park Gate. This involved the demolition of Island House for the construction of three towers with a tail of lowrise buildings branching off.

The project fell into disarray until a revival in the form of news of new architects. By this time, Island House had its listed status. MAKE Architects, an ambitious local architecture firm headed by Ken Shuttleworth, drew up plans for a large development. This incorporated the Fox and Grapes pub as well as Island House.

Planning permission has since been granted and it seems this ambitious proposal could begin very soon. Island House is to get an extra floor constructed on top as well as an extension out the back. It will be dominated by two large buildings either side, one of which will reach a height of 82 metres.

The building is already used by a group called Urban Fusion who are an artistic company. The new development will bring a new lease of life into the building and hopefully transform it into a focal point for the new development which is strategically important in that it links the Bull Ring to Eastside – Birmingham’s next boom area.





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.





Belmont Row Blues

7 05 2007

Belmont BeforeBelmont Row was and is not the most popular of streets in Birmingham. It holds very little importance to its name. But it does have history – a history rarely told and little known.

Belmont Row is in the industrial backwaters of city centre Birmingham. Warehouses and workshops are dotted around the place offering little value socially, morally, economically and architecturally. But there is one building that always makes its presence known whether you are travelling to or from Birmingham New Street station towards Curzon Junction on the railway. Just look north and you’ll see an unusual tower poking above the conglomerate of corrugated metal roofed warehouses. Red brick with a strange dark top. That tower is the candle of the building which this posts directs its subject.

The usage of this tower is unknown but it most likely was a ventilation shaft or chimney stack for the building it is attached to. The Belmont Row warehouse is a locally listed council owned building that contrasts itself to the other buildings on the street. With arched windows and detailed arched entrance, it does hold some form of architectural beauty though it just looks out of place.

I, myself, know very little of the building. But I do know that it was built with the sole purpose of being the furniture factory for the Co-op (more recently renamed in a modernising scheme to The Co-operative). It was obviously a factory building, though the Victorian elaboracy does not indicate such, as a result of the engravings and extrusions decorating the entrance archway “Work people and Goods Entrance”.

I can’t find any information on the architect or the year/ date it was built but I suppose it doesn’t matter when you just admire the grandeur of the gables and arched windows.

Belmont AfterWell, maybe I should have changed everything I have just written to present tense because disaster has struck – not once, but twice. The first blow came on January 11th, 2007 when, in a suspected arson attack, 75% of the building was damaged or destroyed by fire. The loss resulted in seven arched windows and one of the two precious gables. The roof collapsed beginning in the area where the workers and goods entrance is. The weather did no favours too and it struck with another blow. Just one week later on January 18th, 2007, high winds which had battered the country for a short while caused the front façade to collapse in on itself due to the lack of structural support the building received soon after the fire was extinguished.

And now, as the building’s site is being cleared to prevent any more damage, it seems it’s life is over. It may seem all too convenient that the building has been destroyed when a major regeneration scheme dubbed as the next Brindleyplace is set to begin this year. Clearance of many buildings has begun and we will see the entire road layout changed. So, we won’t just witness the loss of one building, but an entire roadmap.