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.





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!





Centre City Tower

21 05 2007

Centre City TowerCentre City Tower is one of the major office buildings in the city, and is also one of the tallest in the city centre at 76 metres. It is a large building, not just in height, but in girth. This does make the building appear rather stubby from a distance, especially when compared to Holloway Circus Tower just up the road.

This grimy looking building on Hill Street was designed by Richard Seifert and Partners, who were responsible for more graceful buildings in Birmingham such as Alpha Tower, and more famously, in London, Tower 42. Construction commenced in 1972 and was completed in 1975.

The complex consists of two buildings; a podium and the tower itself. The tower is not connected to podium at all, which is a low rise building. When first constructed, the podium contained a nightclub and a theatre.

The theatre was a requirement of the City Council, who stipulated that a public amenity should be provided as a condition of granting planning permission. However, the proximity of three other theatres probably contributed to no-one taking up the concession to run the theatre and it remained unused until 1990, when it and the nightclub space were converted to additional office accommodation, under the title ‘Centre City Atrium’. Before building work commenced, the ‘lost’ theatre was featured in an article in the UK trade journal ‘New Civil Engineer’. A remnant of the long gone theatre is the name ‘Theatre Approach’ for a road nearby.

The 21 storey building has developed a dirty appearance over time due to the undulating concrete surface allowing pollution to become trapped within the texture. This darkening has led to it becoming one of the dullest and most gloomy looking building on the skyline. Luckily, the owners have took it upon themselves to do something about it and in mid-2006, they got the power washers out and started cleaning the podium and tower. This is all part of a campaign to give the tower a more attractive appearance to potential companies setting base there.

I quite like this building. Despite being a typical, boring box shape, it also has some interesting features, such as the ridges running vertically along the tower. I also like the windows and the American-office look they have to them. I like the lighting scheme at night which presents the top of the building in a blue illumination. Plus, the buildings fits into it’s surroundings without being too ordinary. Norfolk House and the buildings on the opposite side of the road all suit the architecture of the building and by no means is it out of place. On the skyline it does look out of place but this is mainly down to the fact that Holloway Circus Tower dominates it in terms of design, colour and sheer size. If I were to improve Centre City – I’d reclad it with a metallic facade. But retain the windows and by no means change the structure at all. It’s presence is rightly deserved and needed in that area.





Pritchett Tower: Small Heath’s high rise

19 05 2007

Pritchett TowerHere’s a different type of post. I am quite a fan of tower blocks! I know a lot of you are going to be quite bewildered to the reasoning behind this as they are generally considered to be the breeding pot of the lower classes and architecturally disgusting. They are concrete boxes. But I can’t help but feel that they were quite a revolution in Birmingham’s history. We couldn’t accommodate all these people in two storey semi-detached houses, and we needed to do something with the slums.

Because Birmingham was not expanding it’s boundaries very quickly in the 1960s, it needed to find new space – and that’s when we looked upwards. Some tower block projects were small, such as the one I’m going to post today, but some were huge – such as the Lee Bank estate which was previously slum territory. After World War II, the site was designated the “Bath Row Redevelopment Scheme” and fantastical ideas for the area were drawn up. These included huge motorways with massive interchanges and flyovers. In the early plans, we saw rows and rows of lowrise maisonette buildings and then a few tower blocks dotted around – all this in a wealth of parkland. This is obviously what we didn’t get and the whole site has been cleared for a brand new, yet similar type, of development called Park Central.

But this is not what I wanted to talk about today. Today, I want to talk about Pritchett Tower in the neighbourhood of St Andrews in Small Heath. Small Heath is very much an inner city area just beyond the middle ring road. Driving along Green Lane, you can see that it has barely been touched by post war development. Terraced houses still remain, though they are not a melting pot for the affluent of Birmingham. It is actually, as you will be aware if you live there, an area populous in foreign migrants. The population of those from Asia has boomed over the last two decades. But this area has always been associated with immigrants. Before the Asians, it was the Irish.

Because Small Heath was inner city, it was ripe for post war development, but for some reason, the council decided not to touch the area around Green Lane. Instead, they decided to go nearer to the middle ring road and start demolishing large amounts of land either side. St Andrews was to be born from here. St Andrews is a name generally associated with the Birmingham City Football Club’s football ground. But the name is also given to the housing estate to the south-east of the ground, which is clearly of 1960s age. The centre-piece of the development was a soaring tower.

Approved in 1969, the St Andrews Project, as it was known before construction, was to be a 57 metre tall, 20 storey tower housing 118 flats. Construction commenced immediately on the site and it rocketed up at a rapid pace, as was commonplace with concrete construction. Just two years later in 1971, Pritchett Tower was completed and ready for the residents to set up base in the tower. The 1970s were to spell the end of this generation of tower blocks due to concerns over quality and safety (as witnessed with Ronan Point in London in 1968). Needless to say, the public took to the tower as there was parkland adjacent. Plus, it offered amazing views over the city, and it still does today.

It’s style is not unique to tower blocks at all. It is rather ordinary, but it was Small Heath’s first tower block – and only tower block – so the residents really took to it at that time. They felt, despite the lack of development in the area, that they were ahead of the times and a futuristic area as compared to other neighbourhoods in Birmingham (though by now, pretty much all of them had a tower block to show off).

Pritchett Tower remains today, overlooking Birmingham and it can be viewed from the Bull Ring. It is the tower block to the left of St Martins Church when viewed from the platform on which Nelson’s statue stands. Located on Arthur Street, it appears as a lone soldier with no real significance. It was one of an estimated 350 tower blocks built by the council, and they are now rapidly disappearing. So, how long is it before we start to see this one get emptied and Coleman moving in with their explosives?





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.