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Letter from the editor: Is there an architectural tension in our city?

Hailed as England’s ‘second city’, Birmingham’s landscape is undergoing a radical transformation. In 2011, Birmingham City Council unveiled their ‘Big City Plan’, aiming to redevelop Eastside and key areas of the city to provide an increase in trade, jobs and housing development. Recent plans for the new HS2 development are pushing more change for Birmingham’s cityscape with a new central station and high speed train line. But what does this mean for Birmingham architecturally?

Industrial Revolution

Birmingham has long been known as an industrial city. The boom of the Industrial Revolution spawned the growth of factories in Digbeth and The Jewellery Quarter. Streets of terraced houses, and iconic ‘back-to-back’ properties were built to house workers. There is a beauty in these buildings, and an interesting heritage which, while recognised by local listing, is often ignored by planners when it comes to large developments.

birmingham back-to-back by brianac37 heritage architectureBirmingham back-to-backs by Brianac37

Although industrial buildings, like Newman Brothers Coffin Works, are commonly associated with the city centre, the growth in business and population also caused other architectural projects like the build of St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the smallest in the UK, built to house an ever growing parish.

Heritage architecture

The heritage architecture in the city centre is varied; grand, classical structures like the Museum of Birmingham and the Council Chambers sit close by Neo-Gothic buildings such as the Ikon Gallery.

Our city’s heritage stretches back much before the Industrial Revolution. Originally a small settlement, the town grew, incorporating land around it. Across the city, our buildings tell the story of Birmingham’s heritage. Selly Manor dates back to before the Tudor period, and is a stunning example of early black-and-white architecture. Aston Hall, a grand Jacobean property, was home to a prominent land owner. Sarehole Mill, an idyllic working watermill situated just outside the city centre, was visited by J.R.R Tolkien in childhood and is one of many sites in Birmingham that may have inspired his writings.

sarehole mill exterior, birmingham, heritageSarehole Mill

The suburbs of Birmingham, home to heritage buildings and a variety of residential homes, have landscapes slowly affected by council budget cuts. The recent announcement of the closure of the Mosley Road Baths is just one example of how the lack of funding for heritage public properties is becoming harder to come by.

Rapid growth

The city centre, on the other hand, is changing again at a rapid pace with growing industry. It is here that this architectural tension comes into play for many. Multimillion pound builds, like the futuristic Selfridges Building in The Bullring, and the new Library of Birmingham are beginning to spread throughout the city.

Growth and regeneration for the city – Sir Albert Bore

The Big City plan, including a full development of the Eastside area, has already begun. Millennium Point, the Birmingham City Centre campus and Hotel La Tour are all new additions. New developments include more housing, hotels, eateries and shops. New HS2 plans show a large glass structure encompassing the Curzon Street HS2 entrance, aiming to provide ‘growth and regeneration for the city’ (Sir Albert Bore).

Where is the tension?

Unlike some, it is not the aesthetic tension between these buildings that concerns me. In my opinion, the visual skyline of cities will change over time. In fact, the comparison between old and new fascinates me, showing the growth of communities and our changes in style.

baskerville house by brianac37 birimingham architecture heritage libraryBaskerville House by Brianac37

Instead, my focus, and that of Brumitecture, is on preserving our city’s heritage alongside growing development. Organisations such as the Birmingham Conservation Trust work to ‘preserve and enhance Brimingham’s threatened architectural heritage’ while the city changes around it.

Old vs. New

In wake of the new Library of Birmingham and the proposed development of Paradise Circus, the old Birmingham Central Library will be demolished. A brutalist structure, some would consider it an eyesore. But it is part of our heritage, and just one of a long list of buildings facing demolition or closure in the face of new development or budget cuts.

library of birmingham by elliott brown architecture modernLibrary of Birmingham by Elliott Brown

Island House and Kent House have already been demolished due to dereliction and proposed development, yet both sites have remained empty since the buildings were lost. Many listed pubs, including the Grade II listed Fox and Grapes, may be demolished for the new HS2 line and Eastside developments (HS2 Assets Doc, p. 17).

Preserve and enhance Birmingham’s threatened architectural heritage – Birmingham Conservation Trust

While some may consider these older buildings more aesthetically pleasing than their modern counterparts, the issue of architectural tension is greater than a matter of personal taste. These structures have been listed, locally or nationally, as part of our heritage; they are a historic part of the community. Just because they have fallen into disrepair, should we write them off in favour of high-tech modern development, or make it our responsibility to restore our heritage for future generations?

Responsible regeneration

In the midst of Birmingham’s increasingly modern cityscape, some older buildings are being brought back to life. The Newman Brothers Coffin Works has been taken over by the Birmingham Conservation Trust, and will open in Summer 2014 as a museum. The old CoOp building on Belmont Row, destroyed in a fire, will be restored as a mixed used development as part of The Big City Plan. At the heart of the HS2 development, Grade I listed Curzon Street Station will be renovated to its grandeur, once again a rail link to London.

As a city rich in architectural heritage, it is important protect it in wake of new development. We can’t forget our heritage in place of new development, instead we must consider them side by side. If it makes for an aesthetic architectural tension, a mismatched skyline between structures of the future and restored buildings of the past, then I certainly find it interesting viewing.

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