Birmingham needs to wake up to its own worth if it’s going to turn things around, says Ben Flatman
Just months after the bulldozers moved in to demolish John Madin’s Central Library, Birmingham is facing another blow to its already dire reputation for conservation. This time, the city is scrapping three of its own conservation areas, including one that covers a cluster of arts and crafts houses in and around Barnsley Street. The loss of heritage value in these areas, which has led to their re-designation, has often been exacerbated by the inaction of the city council itself.
The city’s planners seem to have enthusiastically approved the demolition of a large section of the Barnsley Street area to make way for a depressing-looking “care” home. Andy Foster, author of the Pevsner guide to Birmingham, says the city’s planning department “either isn’t interested in conservation, or doesn’t know what conservation is”.
In 2014 the Kerslake Review made a damning indictment of Birmingham City Council, highlighting its silo culture and deafness to dissenting and external voices. Not much seems to have changed since, but it wasn’t always like this. After the massive destruction that afflicted the city in the 1960s and 70s, there was a brief respite to the demolition. Under the leadership of Sir Dick Knowles from 1984, Birmingham briefly forged a path as an early British pioneer in cultural regeneration. Symphony Hall was built to accommodate Simon Rattle’s ambitious plans for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the city took radical steps to reinvigorate its streets and key public spaces.
As the Kerslake Review acknowledged, “30 years ago Birmingham City Council was at the cutting edge of innovation in local government”. A long tradition of not having a senior city architect was reversed when Les Sparks was appointed director of planning and architecture in 1991. During this period the city woke up to its past mistakes and actively sought out those dissenting voices from outside. The 1988 Highbury Initiative, attended by Will Alsop and Terry Farrell, helped to set clear priorities for planning and development that made a major contribution to the city’s future direction.
A combination of intelligent planning and enlightened developers led to the creation two contrasting but equally successful schemes in the shape of the Custard Factory and Brindleyplace. The former helped kick-start Glenn Howells’ young practice, and the latter included Levitt Bernstein’s IKON Gallery, and a jewel-like café by CZWG.
The Custard Factory continues to thrive as a rare example of the creative reuse of a former industrial building in Birmingham. Meanwhile, many of the lessons learned at Brindleyplace were adopted and developed further by Allies & Morrison in their masterplan for Argent at Kings Cross. Sadly, rather than raising the design bar within Birmingham itself, this period in the city’s history now seems to stand as a stark reminder of how poorly the city has been managed since then.
So what explains the currently rudderless direction of the city? Andy Foster sees the current trajectory as a return to form, with Birmingham adopting its default approach to planning. “Any development is good development” seems to be the city’s mantra, while the quality of the wider urban landscape is largely forgotten. Tellingly, organising the next trip to Mipim appears to have become the extent of the council’s long-term planning.
Birmingham desperately needs better leadership and management. But it also needs a prouder and more ambitious vision for its built environment. The autodidact Dick Knowles owned a shelf full of Pevsner guides, but there is little to suggest the city’s more recent leadership has had any genuine interest in architecture. The recent Big City Plan was a well-intentioned attempt to set a new trajectory, but seems to have lacked the strong underlying urban design principles, and perhaps the critical external voices, that helped make the Highbury Initiative a success.
Too often fixated on big projects, Birmingham needs to refocus on the finer grain of the city. Its local neighbourhoods desperately need nurturing to help release their potential. Many struggling cities around the world have successfully transformed their fortunes by realising the value of their own existing built environments. Entire cultural economies have been incubated and flourished within the types of post-industrial landscapes that used to define the rich texture of much of central Birmingham. And countless communities have thrived within the context of well-designed historic housing. Valuing what’s left of its sadly diminished built heritage might be a good place for Birmingham to start turning things around.
Ben Flatman is an architect whose work is mostly focused on South Asia. He lives in Jamaica but grew up in Birmingham and is the author of Birmingham: Shaping the City.
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