Paradise Forum and Central Library: Trash or treasure?

26 10 2007

Paradise ForumIn council rooms, community halls, office boardrooms, a debate is heating up. Should Birmingham’s Central Library and it’s associated Paradise Circus be demolished or preserved for future generations? It’s a tricky question to answer when all arguments are taken into account.

The Central Library was designed by John Madin, an architect that was leaving a mark on postwar Birmingham, in the 1960s. It was completed in 1973, two years later than planned. The books and documents were transported via a makeshift bridge from the old library to the new one. When this was completed, the old library was demolished to make way for the Inner Ring Road and for the Adrian Boult Hall. Even in the design stages, people were unhappy with the design. Madin’s original idea was to have it built in Portland stone but obviously financial factors ruled this out. He had to settle for abrasive blasted reinforced concrete with precast exposed limestone aggregate storey-height panels

The striking design of the building was quite clearly brutal and it met significant opposition upon completion, most famously Prince Charles who described it as “looking more like a place for burning books, than keeping them“. This view was shared by many at the time who saw it as criminal act upon the streetscape at Chamberlain Square and in the midst of the Art Gallery, Council House and Town Hall. But it was much larger than the old library, which was now so small that historic books were being stored in libraries all over the city. The new library had seating for 1,000 people and 32 miles of shelving for over 1 million volumes. Several aspects of the building that made it through the design stages were also ruled out, including a water garden. The open area which was laid out to contain this aqua feature was completed but the pipes were never installed and through the help of poor weather, it deteriorated into a lifeless space, avoided by the public unless they really had to walk through it. The actual library is the building closest to the Council House extension that follows the curve of Chamberlain Square. Paradise Forum was the upturned ziggurat structure that was the most dominant, and probably the most reviled, part of the complex. It lacked elegance.

In the 1980s, change came for the Paradise Forum structure. A glass pitched roof was fitted to the top of it and a new entrance was constructed on the Chamberlain Square elevation. Centenary Way, a bridge crossing the Inner Ring Road was constructed, and either side of it, glass buildings were constructed. One houses the Copthorne Hotel. When viewed from the ICC or the Hall of Memory, this view is symmetrical but the curtain walled glass looks out of place and awkward against the concrete panelled Paradise Forum. Shops units were fitted into Paradise Forum and with other minor additions of a clock and vegetation, it was slightly improved in appearance. But despite this, Birmingham had developed the concrete jungle image and the name ‘Paradise’ was horribly ironic.

In 1999, the council aired their plans for a new Central Library. Alarm bells started ringing across the city. The first location mentioned was that in Eastside on a small patch of land that was being used as industrial offices and units. Richard Rogers was commissioned to design the library and an adjacent residential complex. The design showed a building with a leaf shaped footprint, glass roof and an airy atmosphere. If it were built, it would the 10th largest library in the world. It was met with much admiration, as are many of Rogers’ works. But in a surprise move, the council shelved the plans over cost and Rogers pulled out. It was embarrassing for the council as they had thrown away a chance for a truly world-class structure. Feasibility studies were carried out at locations all over the city centre. Baskerville House was looked at but it decided that it would not be able to hold the weight of all the books. In confidence, the council announced they were looking at splitting the library in two. A reference library would be built at Centenary Square, between the Rep and Baskerville House and a structure containing all the historic documents would be built at Millennium Point in the Eastside. This met yet more opposition, to the dismay of the council. So finally, the council threw this out the window, prolonging the embarrassing saga. The council stuck with their choice of the Centenary Square site and earlier this month, it was announced that they were to combine the library with the Rep theatre to create a cultural and educational centre. However, only days after, the issue of money was brought into it. A few weeks later, it was announced that originally planned international design competition was thrown out the window.

But whilst all this was going on, people were starting to wonder what would happen to the current library. It is not owned by the council. The site is owned by Argent, developers of Brindleyplace. In 2006, they began work on improving the interior of Paradise Forum. The Twentieth Century Society began campaigning for the building to be listed. However, it was obvious that council had other ideas and were favouring getting it demolished. The general public opinion was also that it should be demolished. Nevertheless, the society kept on campaigning, and met very little success. On the other side of the world, plans were also being unveiled for the demolition of Boston City Hall, a similarly designed building. It became clear that these two buildings were probably the only buildings of their kind in the world and both of them are under threat from demolition. This has strengthened the case for the protection of our library.

Now this is how I see things. The library has a strong case for both preservation and demolition and I can’t actually make my mind up. Obviously, this building is a symbol of a type of architecture that is close to extinction. If Boston City Hall is demolished, Central Library is the last of such buildings left in the world. This is an accolade, so do we want to get rid of it from the world? We live in a society where we want to preserve out past. But we seem to only want to preserve what the public see as beautiful when the actual criteria for listing building states that it should be listed on its architectural importance. Now, to me, that means that this should have Grade I listing. But obviously, there will be opposition and surely the council wouldn’t want one of the buildings that they want demolishing being put under the strictest of preservation orders. Plus, this building is a symbol of the vast regeneration Birmingham witnessed following World War II. As the postwar buildings are being blown up and demolished, this building will become one of a kind for the city. Birmingham can celebrate the vast array of architectural styles that it has. More so than many other British cities and this is just a piece in the jigsaw for Birmingham.

But, is it right to preserve a building that also symbolises the reputation that Birmingham acquired as a concrete jungle? Is it right to preserve a building that has no chance of making it onto a postcard? The building is a bottleneck. When passing from Chamberlain Square to Centenary Square, you are squeezed into Paradise Forum and it gets crowded. Over the past few years, the Inner Ring Road has been downgraded and removed, with the exception of Suffolk Street Queensway. What has prevented this? Paradise Circus! So demolition of Paradise Forum and the associated buildings would present an opportunity to not just create a better flow of pedestrians, but to remove the final piece of the Inner Ring Road and reconfigure it.

The plan for the site at the moment is to demolish it all and build a huge office complex. This will most probably consist of at least two towers. Now, I’m all for that as long as it respects the Council House and Town Hall, but when I take into account the importance of the Central Library building, it makes me wonder if there is really a way of keeping that, demolishing the buildings around it and somehow incorporating an office complex with the Paradise Forum. However, that’s an ideal situation where money is no object, and in modern Britain, money is everything. What ever is going to be done here, there will always be opposition and there will always be questions to be asked.

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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?





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.





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.