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?





The Ikon Gallery

18 05 2007

IKON GalleryFor some crazy reason, I only recently discovered the Ikon Gallery. I often go to Brindleyplace but I rarely stray off into that area where the gallery stands – therefore I found it quite a pleasant surprise and I am sure I will visit it again to check out the architecture and square fronting it.

So, as usual, I have been doing some research into the building to try and understand what it’s about and why it’s there (it can’t have been built as a gallery so long ago – this was the centre of the industrial revolution in Birmingham).

After some extensive research, I discovered that this is yet another work of the great and prolific Martin & Chamberlain, who were commissioned by the Birmingham School Board to design a school building for Oozells Street. In 1877, the school opened and the Ikon Gallery is now set inside this building. I found it quite bewildering that a school was built in such an area. Oozells Street has since lost its vehicular access and is nothing more than a pedestrianised path passing in front of the gallery to Central Square from Broad Street. Maps of this area show that to the rear of the building was an iron works, to the right was an engine works and just next to the iron works was a pin factory. How on Earth did these children study?

It seems the reasoning behind the construction of the school was the density of the population of the area. This was not just crammed with factories and workshops but was also a dense housing area for the working class. The children had nowhere to be educated until this was constructed.

In 1889 Oozells Street Board School became the George Dixon Higher Grade School replacing a school in Bridge Street. The George Dixon School was partly an elementary and partly a Science School. It closed in 1906 when the George Dixon School moved to the site it presently occupies on City Road.

As industry in the area deteriorated due to the slowing pace of national manufacturing, the area fell into a state of neglect. The school building was boarded up and only a few unlucky families remained in the area with the factories.

Argent has breathed new life into the area with the Brindleyplace development and which has brought about the refurbishment of this building. The neo-gothic structure is now the focal point of this square and is a beautiful setting for the gallery which is now becoming an internationally renowned organisation. It is a miracle that this was saved from demolition, as many other Victorian schools have succumb to such a fate. I have a great respect for the building after reading the history.





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.





Sutton Coldfield United Reformed Church

16 05 2007

Sutton URCSutton Coldfield URC is really a hidden gem. It is a small, quaint church situated in the centre of Sutton Coldfield – nestled between the popular shopping area of the Parade and Gracechurch and the historic and beautiful Sutton Coldfield Conservation area. The 1970s development of the Gracechurch Centre has done nothing to help it become more popular. It is now hidden behind a concrete monstrosity that consists of various shops, a multistorey car park and Knights House, a dull brick office block.

Construction was incredibly quick in those days, eventhough they did not have the same technology we have to do such as piledrivers and mechanical excavators. The foundation stone was laid in June 1879, and less than a year later, in April 1880, the building was completed. The building was different to what we see today. On the church tower next to the entrance, there was a spire which propelled the height. However, in 1960, the spire had become structurally unsafe and had to be removed. Additions to the church came in the form of a ladies parlour in 1902 (now church offices), a chancel and vestries in 1890, the removal of a parting wall between the nave and the transept which opened up the space in the church. In 1904, the church upgraded its lighting system from gas to electric. A new porch was built on the front of the church in 1911. In 1935, the church received a donation of oak panelling which were installed that year.

The church did have school buildings on Station Street, but the construction of the ring road, now Brassington Avenue, required the demolition of the buildings. The church took the opportunity to extend the building closer to the road to create a new area to worship. The church also took the opportunity to reclad the building, however, locals comically took to this and named it the ‘pink church’. Obviously unhappy with the image the church had, the committee removed the cladding and replaced it with the original brickwork in 1991.

Looking through the old photographs of Sutton Coldfield, it is impossible to make out this church in the early 1920s. The main feature on the church in the 1920s was the spire. It was so large and must have doubled the height of the church. It was only recently that I realised it had been removed, and what a terrible loss it was.

I often find myself making comparisons between the Gracechurch Centre with the Bull Ring. They both have a church near it’s centre that can easily become a focal point. The Bull Ring had the possibility of redeveloping, and that it did. Gracechurch is in a more problematic situation meaning that any redevelopment work would cause a lot of disruption to the town and cause alot of problems to businesses. So it remains that Sutton Coldfield URC has to remain hidden behind slabs of horrible concrete, away from the public view. And that, I find, is a real shame for a church that has so much potential.





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.





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.