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

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.

Birmingham City Centre – Vision for Movement

Only recently have I come across the Birmingham City Centre ‘Vision for Movement‘ [PDF], created by Birmingham City Council in November 2010, which aims to be ‘laying the foundations for a vibrant and liveable global city’.

The themes within the plan focus on Birmingham being

  • A well connected city,
  • A walkable city, and
  • An efficient city.

A well connected city

Whilst the expansion of Birmingham New Street, and the longer term vision to bring HS2 to Birmingham underpin the desire to improve the rail capacity and quality in the area it is not just focused on the railways.  The Metro is still shown to be of interest wider than just the expansion to New Street (and lately we have heard of the expansion to Centenary Square, and there is the potential for the Metro to reach to Eastside if HS2 delivers).

One key theme coming out of this area is making the public transport network easier to use, this is happening at the moment with the new interchanges and we are starting to see the standardisation of design and branding towards the network.  Also the Birmingham Swift smartcard is being introduced by CentroSmartcard Branding PDF].

Rapid Transit Corridors are proposed as part of Birmingham Sprint, which would see quick routes out of the city to locations such as Birmingham International. Though this doesn’t seem to have been a focus for the moment, and perhaps now that the interchanges have been created this may be the next bus led focus.

Cycle routes are discussed, and whilst there has been some improvement to this over the last few years there is certainly not much movement regarding ‘better connectivity to the canal network.  Also I can’t think of the ‘secure storage hubs’ that it talks about, but again this is something that is feasible, and cycling facilities need improving if we are to see an increase in cycling within the city.

A walkable city
For Birmingham to be a walkable city the public realm needs to satisfy this need, and it highlights that pedestrians need to be considered through the creation of better quality links between the main transport interchanges and the city centre.  Some indicative images of what the future public realm could look like are further below.

Lately with the introduction of the new bus interchanges, and associated totem signage we can start to see consistent design and way-marking/wayfinding coming to Birmingham.  This is part of the Interconnect Birmingham plan, and will be one of the most visual changes to allow pedestrians to find it easier to navigate the streets.