The city that we know and love today is a stark contrast to the Birmingham it was just half a century ago, with new building developments cropping up every few months. But will they really last?
From the glowing red brick and terracotta Victoria Law Courts on Corporation Street to the glimmering glass facade of the Rotunda and the light, gleaming marble of the Town Hall, Birmingham is a patchwork of architectural statements.
Reminders of their time, of the ambitious architects responsible for their creation and of the industries and rituals that required their existence, these buildings are chapters of Birmingham’s ongoing story, markers on a timeline stretching back many hundreds of years.
Some are firm favourites among residents and visitors alike, while others, particularly the later, more radical developments, are cause for debate among those who enjoy their modern design and those who feel they’re ill-fitting on our skyline.
With a regeneration underway, the foundations laid for a host of new developments and blueprints drawn up for future projects, the city is set to change drastically over the coming years.
But how will these new projects, popping up on the skyline like Spring daffodils, stand the test of time? What does Birmingham look like in the years to come? And what does it tell the wider world about who we are as a city?
To make any sense of the future, we must first look to our past. Regardless of the intention when they were built, their appearance or their function, each of the buildings that make up our urban landscape has something in common: they document our heritage. Beside one another, they stand as monuments of Birmingham’s industrial heyday, its post-war regeneration, its future-focused creativity.
“When it comes to architecture, Birmingham has always been a forward-looking city,” says Steve Townsend, associate director at city-based Associated Architects.
The practice has created many award-winning buildings in the region since business began half a century ago, including Birmingham City University’s Parkside and Curzon buildings and the University of Birmingham New Library. They were also responsible for the refurbishment of Birmingham’s iconic Town Hall.
Steve believes that it’s with our architecture that we Brummies can show the world what our city is all about. “This goes right back to the days of Joseph Chamberlain, whose vision for the city included impressive Parisian style boulevards and grand civic buildings,” he says.
“Throughout the decades this trend has continued, as individuals have made their mark imposing their vision for the future.
“These layers of history tell a story of an ambitious, confident city. And while in retrospect there were urban planning mistakes, we should on the whole be proud of this past and respectful of our rich and important heritage.”
Prince Charles once described Central Library as resembling “a place where books are incinerated, not kept”.
While John Madin’s 1974 concrete creation didn’t impress royalty, campaigners including Brutiful Birmingham founding member Mary Keating, fought against plans to demolish it.
“Birmingham was the second most bombed city in the UK outside of London and there was a lot of damage, with a lot of good Victorian buildings swept away,” Mary says. “In that time, Victorian buildings weren’t really appreciated – they were old hat and everyone wanted bright shiny ones! This is the same with the more modern buildings too – they have a bad reputation.
“Birmingham was very bold after the Second World War in terms of what it commissioned for its architecture. The Central Library was a fantastic building, as was Pebble Mill Studios. Birmingham was good at it, and it seems we’ve lost our nerve somewhere along the line.”
Not that Mary believes all late 20th Century structures to be perfect. “There are, of course, some aspects of that architecture that simply aren’t good, but it seems it’s all being tarred with the same brush – just a ‘concrete jungle’ that should all be demolished. The philosophy behind Brutalist architecture was about monumental buildings for the people. They were honest buildings, created for us as part of the post-war plans for the future.
“There was a feeling of huge optimism when they were built. The idea that it’s all poorly made with poor materials is a stereotype that’s quite difficult to break away from.”
“The city planners are a bit behind the times. In London, they’re celebrating it, with the areas surrounding buildings like the Barbican and the National Gallery becoming very gentrified. Birmingham is lagging behind in acknowledging that these buildings are very desirable.
“It’s like modern art. You have to work at seeing what’s wonderful about it.
“What our mix of architecture says about us is that we have been a very successful city. All of the styles of buildings side by side show the confidence of Birmingham. I think we’ve lost that. While it’s not true of all of our new buildings, with many, you could be anywhere. What’s distinctive about any of them? They’re generally clad – are they going to last like the solid structures of the past?”
Only time will tell how long Birmingham’s new buildings will last on its skyline, but the impression it’ll leave on those that visit will be seen much sooner.
The eyes of the world will be focused on us in 2022 when we host the Commonwealth Games, and established businesses are turning to Birmingham for new headquarters outside of the capital.
Birmingham’s appearance to a wider audience is important, but Steve believes it’s having the home crowd at the heart of plans that will ensure the city’s new structures stand the test of time.
“As a practice that was founded in Birmingham 50 years ago, we have seen the city transform and we have been lucky enough to be involved with many projects that have shaped the skyline,” he says. “Trends may have come and gone in those 50 years, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the principle that underpins our work – putting people at the centre of design.
“We believe that’s the key to creating architecture that stands the test of time. It’s thoughtful architecture, designed for people; creating places for people to live, work and enjoy the city, for the better.”
And while Mary campaigns for a future for our older structures, she’s looking forward to what’s to come too.
“We want people to be a bit more discerning about their heritage, but I am sure we’ll have some gems in all of the new architecture. We need to recognise them, because they’ll be of our time.”
And so what will these buildings look like?
Well, at first glance, none are scheduled to be quite as futuristic-looking as the bubbling Selfridges building or the intricate Library of Birmingham.
But we are set to gain more curves with the completion of rounded, sparkling One Chamberlain Square.
It’ll flank the historic space alongside neighbouring Two Chamberlain Square, which is set to bring ‘a striking, contemporary addition’ to the area, with floor to ceiling glazing and strong, geometric lines reaching into the sky.
These, along with the towering 42 storey 2one2 building planned for Broad Street and other ambitious erections in the area will change how we locals, and visitors from further afield, see the city for as long as they remain standing – or remain in vogue.
As long as we Brummies can embrace them as monuments of this time of change, and they don’t come at the expense of the fine buildings that have made Birmingham the city that it is today, then they’re sure to stand the test of time, seeing us into what promises to be a bright, sparkling future.