Library of Birmingham


Erection of public library (Use Class D1), together with partial demolition, refurbishment and extension of existing theatre (Sui Generis), including low carbon energy centre and associated landscaping and highway works  

Photo by Christian Richters

The Library of Birmingham is not an understated building, it proudly takes its place within Centenary Square amongst Baskerville House and The Rep. Whilst appearing dominating at first, it helps to be able to enclose the square. What was once a surface car park now has purpose.

Designed by Francine Houben and the team at Mecanoo this is a Library that will hopefully adapt with the city, and not fall by the wayside like the three others the city has had all within a short distance of this site.

The modern library is no longer solely the domain of the book – it is a place with all types of content and for all types of people.

The building aims to be a place where people can continue the journey of learning, and it shows that it is more than a place where books live. It’s a destination, a meeting place, a cafe, a viewing platform, a cinema, and of course the features we come to expect of a library.

As a library of the now and also the future, it’s an adaptable space that understands that the needs of the people it serves in 50 years time will undoubtably be different from what they are now.

After viewing the construction of this building on nearly a daily basis for three years, it was interesting to see the way it connects to the city from the inside and the terraces.  It brings a platform which we can observe, and understand the city we are in.  The ability to have the viewing galleries and outdoor space accessible to all is empowering.

Whilst the Cube may have first offered the people of Birmingham it’s views from the Marco Pierre White restaurant, it did not make it accesible to all. The Library succeeds as it belongs to the people.

The striking thing with the library from the exterior is the frieze, the filigree pattern, which is an ‘ode to the circle’, a connection to Birmingham’s reputation as the Jewellery Quarter.

It is however, also reminiscent of the frieze that was present in Mecanoo’s unsuccessful  submission for the International Criminal Court.  It is not unusual that an unused design feature has appeared again, designs are built upon and recycled, and either way it works well for this building and for the context it is set against.

When you step inside the building you begin to understand the amount of space that has been created. The multitude of levels of this building connect across the open atrium that has been created by using a series of overlapping rotundas.  At the very top you are connected to the sky, and a lift reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ready to burst out of the building.

It’s not all about heading skywards, as the building leads you down into the ground with its multitude of ‘ground’ floors and out towards the amphitheatre you can head back and observe the Library from a different vantage point.

This is designed to a be a performance space, and is in the area home to noise (both the children’s and music section). Francine said that it was ‘Essential for a building to have a piano’ and perhaps we will see it used here.

This building may not be for everyone, but it is for me. There is a lot to see and explore, and come the official opening I will be back for more.

Photo by Christian Richters

Birmingham Queensway Tunnel

The Birmingham Queensway roads are part of a network of dual carriageways that were built in between the 1960s and 1970s and formed part of the Birmingham Inner Ring Road (A4400).

As part of the Birmingham Highways Maintenance programme Amey will be closing the Queensway and St. Chads tunnel and undertaking structural modifications, upgrading fire protection, and improving the lighting and general appearance.Further refurbishment works including new emergency, control and communications systems are being planned for next year.

The refurbishment of the Queensway tunnel is also linked to the Paradise Circus Redevelopment:

Fire Escape Tunnels.
Located directly underneath the main service ducts are fire escape tunnels providing egress routes from the Queensway tunnel running across the Site. These will be made redundant as a result of the refurbishment of the Queensway Tunnel
Paradise Circus D&A Statement (PDF)  

The tunnel path can clearly be seen below:

The creation of the Queensway tunnel in 1969 was captured by John Ball (slide 3 and 4), below I’ve produced a composite view to help show the context.  The dark black building is the Congreve Passage side of the Council House Extension.

John Lewis


Construction of a new A1 department store including ancillary customer facilities (including customer cafes and restaurants and other customer services) set over four floors, and the construction of two A3 retail units at concourse level, three A1 retail units at hinterland (ground floor) level and three A1 retail units at the lower retail level. The proposed development also includes: demolition work to facilitate construction, provision of drop-off and pick-up areas, extension of the public concourse with a reconfigured access lift and ramp and extension to the public NCP car park on the roof level and ancillary services and facilities. 

Work on the John Lewis store is well underway and it is due to be launched in Autumn 2014 in conjunction with the rebranding of the Pallasades as Grand Central.

As the planning statement indicates they have demolished Stephenson Tower [Youtube] and this project is part of the wider New Street Gateway project.  

Below is the view from Hill Street, the steps that can be seen to the right of the road are currently in place, and form the present exit out of the Phase I redevelopment of the station towards Southside.

In the southern elevation pictures the taxi rank can be made out, which is planned to have space for 32 taxis to be queued at.

In the planning application there are details about the glazing that may be used, which can be seen in the renders and the close up detailing can be seen below.

This specific pattern is currently proposed as a screen print to the sealed inside faces of the double glazing. The gap between the patterns will enable two distinct perceptions of the building depending on how close the viewer is to the glazed facade (see Fig 4t):

• When viewed from a distance, the resultant envelope of the department store is a translucent, shimmering veil that allows for partial views into the department store and the partial penetration of light and view out of the department store while maintaining flexibility for the interior displays.

• When viewed close up internally from the sales floor the diamond pattern emerges providing the glass facade a distinctive and crystalline appearance recalling the many silver and glass etched surfaces included in the early JLP catalogues.

Construction Pictures
28 May 2013

Birmingham’s Cycle City Ambition

Recently Birmingham City Council have confirmed that they will be submitting a bid for £17M of funds from the Department for Transport as part of the Cycle City Ambition grants announced by Norman Baker. In total the DFT have released £42M, which is to be spent as £30M on urban cycling improvements, and £12M on rural elements (National Parks).

The Government indicate that:

‘for the urban element there will be a maximum of 3 Cycle City Ambition Grants…However, as an indication of our approach, we might expect to support one First Wave 1 city and two cities bidding to be Second Wave cities.’
Cycle city ambition grants guidance [PDF]

This means that Birmingham will be competing against the other Wave 1 City Deal cities:

  • Leeds,
  • Sheffield,
  • Newcastle,
  • Bristol,
  • Liverpool,
  • Manchester, and
  • Nottingham.

If Birmingham is successful the £17M of central funds (alongside £5.9M of local funding) will be spent by 2016, and is part of the overall strategy of the Birmingham Cycle Revolution which is looking to make the city better focussed for cycling as part of a 20 year plan.  It also helps to deliver upon the council’s Vision for Movement, as well as showing that the council recognise that a modal shift towards cycling is needed.

A report before the council on 9 April 2013 ‘Changing Gear: Transforming Urban Movement through Cycling and Walking in Birmingham’ shows that Birmingham is considering the actions needed to make it a better environment for cycling.

The simple truth is that at the moment we do not have the infrastructure that helps to support a culture of cycling.  Below the current state of the cycle network can be seen:

The £22.9M of funds would be used to deliver:

  • Main Corridors – measures along eight of the main arterial routes into the city centre, which will generally be suitable for more experienced / confident commuter cyclists;
  • Parallel Routes – a network of generally quieter routes running parallel to the main corridors, but also linking to local schools, health centres, parks and other community facilities, and suitable for less experienced cyclists and family trips as well as commuters;
  • City Centre – a series of mostly minor measures, including some contraflow cycle facilities, to improve routes into and through the city core;
  • Green Routes – improvements and extensions to the existing network of ‘off-road’ routes such as Rea Valley, Cole Valley and Tame Valley particularly suitable for family and leisure cycling, and so supporting the tourism economy, but also available for commuter cyclists;
  • Canal Towpaths – extensive improvements to towpaths to provided a sealed surface more suitable for all-weather cycling, suitable for leisure and commuter cyclists;
  • Supporting Measures – items such as cycle hire, parking and hubs, wayfinding, a significant extension of 20mph areas, and bike loans to encourage and assist more people to cycle and stimulate local cycling manufacture; and
  • Smarter Choices – supporting package of revenue-funded promotional, mapping, marketing, educational and training measures to promote cycling to local residents and businesses.

This would mean that by 2016 the cycle network in Birmingham would look like:

Birmingham will find out by June 2013 whether it has been successful in the bid for funds. The real question is what will happen to the Birmingham Cycle Revolution with only £5.9M of local funding, as that will not stretch too far.

Birmingham: A Changing City

Birmingham’s skyline has changed a lot over the last decade, but we have always lived in an ever changing city.  It was through researching some of the changing areas of the city centre, that we came across some great recent collections of pictures that help build up a tale of how Birmingham has changed in the last five centuries.

It’s worth visiting Birmingham Museum & Art gallery, and the Birmingham: its people, its history collection to get a sense of the 500 years of change. The following three landscapes are from 1604, 1706, and 1829.

Sources: Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery - Flickr

The previous picture show how the city had expanded, but we can start to see some familiar features including St. Phillips church.

Source: Library of Birmingham – Twitter 

This picture from 1886 shows the familiar Civic features of Birmingham, Council House, Townhall, Chamberlain Square and what was the newly built Birmingham School of Art (1885).

Source: Library of Birmingham – Benjamin Stone Collection 

Towards Colmore Row this picture from 1910 shows a familiar streetscape, looking out from St. Phillips churchyard and the area still looks the same today.

Source: John Ball

Though further along towards Snow Hill Station we can see a very different site, the station closed in 1969 and was demolished in 1977.  Although on Livery St there are still some signs of the previous station, including original entrances.

Source: Britain From Above

In 1921 we can see the Civic buildings seen before, but also the Birmingham Libary to the left of the Town Hall, and the Mason Science College behind it.  Both can be seen in the picture below.

Source: John Ball

This timelapse made up of images captured by Derek Fairbrother shows the transition between the old and new within our city.

Birmingham timelapse from 7inch cinema on Vimeo.

Source: Geoff Thompson Archive

The pictures from this archive show the grandness of the old library interior, and the aerial view shows the brutalist Birmingham Central Library which replaced it. The building in red was the old library prior to its demolition to clear the area for the rest of the Paradise Circus development.

Sources: Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery - Flickr

Whilst the library was knocked down, we still have the Hall of Memory (the round dome) which is captured above in 1929 when the land around it was not as built upon as it is now.

Source: John Ball

Around 1965-1969 the Birmingham & Midland Institute building was demolished, it stood on Paradise St and was also removed to make way for the new library and Paradise Circus complex.  In the background we can still see the top of hall of memory, and also Baskerville House.

Source: RIBA

The new buildings of the time were clad in concrete, and shone brightly compared to their surroundings.  Above is the REP Theatre which was built in 1971, to the left stands industrial buildings which get cleared to make way for the ICC.  Below is the view from the canal network before the ICC and Brindley Place development happened.

Sources: Building of Convention Centre by Guilbert53 

Above we can see that whilst most of the land was cleared, the two buildings on the left remain in the development (Ikon Gallery, and Flares) As well as the images above, it’s well worth taking a look at the following links which provide an insight into what Birmingham used to be like.

For those familiar with the city centre, the photo walk format from John Ball is a good guide to show you around the city.  The work of the Norton family to archive the pictures in their collection also provides a wider coverage which includes the Birmingham suburbs.

Birmingham has changed a lot, and whilst we still have areas which are as they were back in the 1870s, we also have the continual redevelopment in the city centre. It will be hard to know whether our changing city is keeping and preserving the right buildings. In 2015 we start to see the Paradise Circus redevelopment which sees us lose the ‘new’ Library building that replaced the ‘old’ one that was shown above.

It’s hard to imagine what the city will look like by 2050, but it is fair to say that it will look quite different to now.

Birmingham Architecture Festival 2013

Urbanbuildings as a site is all about the Redevelopment, Redesign, and Rediscovery of Birmingham and I’m glad to say that the upcoming Birmingham Architecture Festival certainly looks to be fulfilling that last point.

It’s taking place over the late May holiday, 24-27 May, and their promotional details show great promise:

The theme for the festival is ‘Take A Second Look‘. No matter how long we have been inhabitants of a certain place, there is always something new to discover. The city of Birmingham is a vibrant, dynamic and ever-changing place and the festival aims to celebrate the quirks that make up this wonderful melting pot.

BAF2013 will host a range of events such as tours, lectures, exhibitions, installations, screenings and workshops, all with the aim of celebrating the city, its architecture, its spaces and its inhabitants and hopefully encouraging all of us to take a second look.

Things to look forward to include architect accompanied photo walks, by Matt and Pete’s Photo School.  It also looks like Ben Waddington from the Still Walking festival has been inspiring/assisting with the creation of some of the walks, based on a mention of the Digbeth Moss tour on his blog.

These type of tours are a great chance to explore a city we might think we know intimately, but end up leaving with a fresh perspective on things.  As Ben says:

I often suggest to people they stop and look at the city rather than walk past it at a fast pace – there are worthwhile things to see that you will miss by walking at all.

Whilst the full schedule of events has not yet been released, the Derelict Buildings tour and the Material World tour amongst others give a sample of what is to come.

Icknield Port Loop


Outline planning application for demolition of buildings and a mixed use redevelopment of up to 1150 dwellings, retail, service, employment, leisure and non-residential institutions uses (Use Class C3, B1, A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, D1 & D2) of up to 6960 square metres (gross internal area) (including up to 2500 square metres of retail) (gross internal area) together with hotel and community facilities, open space, landscaping and associated works including roads, cycleways, footpaths, car parking and canal crossings. Change of use of industrial buildings fronting Rotton Park Street to leisure, retail and non-residential institutions (Use Class A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, B1, D1 & D2)

Icknield Port Loop is a recently approved outline plan for a new housing development that will include a hotel, pub, supermarket and a community centre. The site has been identified for many years as being a suitable place for development.  It is located between Edgbaston and Ladywood, just near Edgbaston reservoir, and its main feature is the the Icknield Port Loop canal that runs through the site.

What makes this site different to most new housing developments is the fact that it is close to the city centre (just a 10 minute walk from NIA along the canal), and that it will be a mixture of housing densities. The plans indicate that it won’t be run of the mill semi detached houses, and that whilst there will be apartments on the site they won’t be in the majority. Instead the site will have some innovative housing types that are shown further below.

The revised Design & Access Statement (Part I and Part II) have addressed some earlier concerns with the original plan and include a wider canal path around the side (as opposed to no path, and just houses being up to the waters edge on both side).

Due to the mix of densities proposed there are quite a few different housetypes proposed, the most controversial type proposed in the plan, and whilst they mention how they are popular in the Netherlands there has been some comparison to the Victorian back-to-backs.

“I am not convinced that people want courtyard living, particularly if you share the space with a noisy family. Wherever they are in the world these things quickly become slums.”
Councillor Barry Henley

Though the site also has some modern interpretations of terraced and other low density houses such as the monument type.  Overall the feeling from the outline plan is that the mixture of densities will give the area its own distinct zones and have their own communities, but are joined together through the use of the parkland and canal network.

It’s certainly better than the current cleared land, and hopefully construction will get under way in 2013, in a phased approach.  The overall intention is ‘to create by 2025, a high-quality, family orientated, sustainable and mixed use waterside neighbourhood’, and I think these plans will help improve the area as a whole.

Courtyard houses

These are based on the Dutch model. We are showing one type that works as a back to back with an internal parking space and courtyard and a roof garden. Another type works as a through house backing onto the canal.

Waterside Houses:

These are houses that fill the entire plot and run from the back of pavement to the waters edge. They include an internal courtyard and parking and roof gardens plus the possibility of a private mooring.

‘Monument Houses’ – Modern terraced housing in the lower density areas:

Paradise Circus Redevelopment


Outline planning application (all matters reserved save for access) for demolition of all buildings on the site (save for the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial) and commercial led mixed use redevelopment of up to 170,012 square metres gross internal floorspace, comprising offices (Use Class B1a), retail and leisure units (Use Classes A1/A2/A3/A4/A5/D1/D2), concert hall (D2), energy centre (Sui Generis), together with a hotel of up to 250 bedrooms (Use Class C1), car parking, highways works (to include the closure of eastern arm of Paradise Circus gyratory), public realm improvements and associated works including alterations to public rights of way.

The Paradise Circus redevelopment is a contentious one, mainly due to the presence of the Birmingham Central Library which was designed by John Madin and is set to be demolished if the plans get approved.  Though the building has been recommended for local listing by English Heritage, it has never achieved that status and the council have a Certificate of Immunity order on the building, preventing it from being listed.

The council have established an exclusivity agreement with Argent, who were behind the creation of Brindleyplace, with a view to sign a joint venture relationship for the redevelopment of the site once planning permission has been granted.
Whilst we await the final decision regarding the outline, it was interesting to see how the current plans look from a historical perspective.  As well as seeing how the proposal brings the area back to the public, both from an ease of access routes (especially down Congreve Passage to Summer Row) and also improvements to the public realm with two new squares, and the improvement to Chamberlain Square.

Town Hall and Council House - March 1921 (Britain From Above)

Whilst the future of the Central Library is an evocative topic, it cannot be ignored that the site plan does not facilitate access through it, or around it.  Areas such as Fletchers Walk, Paradise Place towards Summer Row, and Congreve passage are not the most accessible. Looking at the plans it shows that consideration has been given to the pedestrian flow, and there are a lot more ways to navigate across the site.
One of the main changes to the road layout is the closure of eastern arm of Paradise Circus gyratory (i.e the bit that runs under the Library).  There are also quite a lot of roads that would need to be reconfigured because of this.
Recently on 11 October 2012 the council Planning Committee met, and an item on the agenda was to discuss issues related to the planning application [PDF], this revealed some potential S106 planing obligations including:
  • Transport contribution – to include works to facilitate the next phases of Metro and contributions to public transport including Interconnect (new bus shelters and totem signage)
  • Public realm improvements – in particular to Chamberlain Square, Town Hall surroundings and Centenary Square – approximately £2.65m
  • Contributions to Wayfinding signage both into and around the site – £180,000
  • Easy Row subway improvements linking through to Arena Central – approximately £150,000.

National Indoor Arena Refurbishment


Extension and refurbishment scheme to include enhanced ancillary retail areas (Use classes A1, A3, A4 and A5), external facade works, erection of 3 no. ‘Sky Needles’ signage, landscape and public realm works. 

For those familiar with Brindleyplace the layout of the NIA complex is at odds with the more common access routes to the venue.  If you enter through Brindleyplace you end up walking across the bridges over the canals and ending up at the service area of the venue, and also facing a rather plain looking building.  The approved plans for the refurbishment of the NIA take into account its setting against the canal network, and open up the area through better access whilst also improving the facade.

Set to undergo a £20.6 million transformation, the modernisation of the NIA aims to take advantage of its unique location on the city’s canal side and will feature a new showcase entrance straight from Brindleyplace into the arena, with large glazed views over the water and the city.

Work will get underway in late 2012 and will include improved facilities and a much greater emphasis on both the pre and post show experience. Coupled with an exciting partnership with Barclaycard, the NIA will offer a vastly improved experience for anyone setting foot in the arena.
[Future NIA]

Unfortunately the refurbishment does not encompass the whole exterior of the venue, and the car park around the back will still look odd and dull once this work has finished.

That said the creation of retail/food/drink units fronting the canalside, will certainly help people interact with this side of the building and help improve the public realm in the longer term.

Interconnect Birmingham – City Mapping & Wayfinding

Those familiar with London will have seen a consistent signage brand throughout the city to help locals and visitors alike find their way. This was initiated by a study back in 2006 that TFL commisioned called Legible London [PDF] which aimed to make London easier to navigate for pedestrians.

Though it is not just London that cares about pedestrians, in Birmingham it has been identified that visitors’ navigation needs improving:

Interconnect Birmingham is a project to improve visitors’ navigation of the city – from initial web visit, through maps and on-street orientation and signage; it will ensure visitors have the best possible experience of the city. The project is a key part of the Big City Plan. [Birmingham Toolkit]

Interconnect Birmingham, a £3 Million project, it is mentioned in the Big City Plan, and also is seen in the Vision for Movement for making Birmingham a walkable city.  The contract for the first phase of the work was put out to tender, which City ID won.  They are experts within the field, and show that Birmingham is really looking to achieve a high quality output.

The first phase of work will focus on improving orientation with improved street mapping and interpretation to help people locate their destination and create better mental maps of the city.  It will help them to link different areas of the city and integrate their journeys. [Marketing Birmingham]

City ID - Promotional Image - Interconnect Birmingham

To achieve the above the above:

  1. A map of Birmingham was required, and
  2. A mechanism to deliver the maps (such as monoliths, totems, signs).

As a basis for the work a royalty free map was created by Bluesky, which cost £86,765 [FOI Request, Word Document].  This map was then corroborated by City ID with on-street research.  With the aim being to design a map which blended detailed urban structures with simplified road networks; putting the pedestrian first. [Yellowfields Blog].

The map above is an indicative image based on the work by one of the City ID consulltants who mentions that the final colouring and other detailing is subject to change.  More recently a new public transport map of Birmingham [PDF] has been released which uses this style, and gives a good indicator of what to expect in our wayfinding maps.

In total there will be 24 wayfinding totems installed in the next fortnight which make up Phase 1 of the delivery, and they will be placed within the City Core.  These totems will look similar to the new bus signage which contains public transit information, and be the first step to making it Birmingham an easier city to navigate.

Thought it is not just about making it easier for people to navigate across the city core, and these wayfinding totems will appear in the Jewellery Quarter, Eastside & Digbeth as part of Phase 2.  This is currently in the preparation stage, so it will be a little while before we see them appearing on the street.

Overall it looks like Birmingham is set to deliver a great initiative, that has been in gestation for a while (back as far as 2007).

Update (Tuesday 25 September 2012):
It appears that one of the large monolith signs installed on Colmore Row for the Snow Hill Interchange has incorrect artwork.  The photo below is taken looking towards Snow Hill with the Cathedral on the right hand side.

Interconnect Birmingham Incorrect Snow Hill MonolithThe wayfinding map is orientated the correct way, though the signposting area at the top is incorrect. The Interconnect Birmingham team have been notified of this, and have informed us that the sign will be fixed as a matter of priority.

Update (Monday 15 October 2012):
The totems are appearing across the city centre, and this post has been updated to show them.