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New look for New Street

Despite its shortcomings, the revamped Birmingham New Street is a triumph

The ETFE roof might prove light and energy efficient, but great stations tend to opt for glass.
The ETFE roof might prove light and energy efficient, but great stations tend to opt for glass. · Credit: John James

Walking around Central Birmingham, one thing’s for certain – the transformation of Birmingham New Street Station has been well received by the public. 

It’s difficult to comprehend how a 1960s concrete behemoth has metamorphosised from a dysfunctional, hostile bunker into something of implausible delicacy and finesse. Anyone who used the station before the work started would be aware of its oppressive nature, poor sense of arrival and confusing orientation, with its principal entrance via a third-rate shopping centre. 

New Street Station first opened in the 1880s with a soaring, 1,100ft long light-filled cast iron and glass train shed, with only a slender footbridge linking the platforms. Bar some small modifications, this remained until the Second World War. As a result of bomb damage and neglect the majestic roof structure was removed and replaced with modest canopies at platform level. 

In the post-war reconstruction of Birmingham, the air rights were given up to partner developers to create a series of solid structures containing car parks, office buildings and Stephenson Tower, an early, crude example of city living. The scheme was completed in 1968. 

The Birmingham Shopping Centre (later The Pallasades) opened three years later. This real estate-led process turned what was already a subterranean station into a full underground model, with escalators linking the platforms to a concourse level. Apart from the degradation of the trackside environment, this removed any sense of joy in arrival or departure. The only notable exception to the late 1960s debacle was the Grade II listed junction box, an exceptionally well-crafted precast concrete brutalist piece. 

The scale of the task undertaken should not be underestimated. Apart from the logistical conundrum of an intensive six-year demolition and build programme – all above live tracks – this project had other constraints and challenges to overcome, including complex land issues. It’s hard to imagine that between 2005 and 2008, the owners of the Pallasades (Warner Estate/Agora Max) were locked into a dispute with Network Rail and in fact objected to its 2006 planning application, until Birmingham City Council compulsorily purchased their interest in the site. This released the true potential of the project, in particular the creation of an enormous atrium space, which involved the removal of a large section of the glitzy mall and a grotesque multi-storey car park. 

A paved square at the new east entrance is overlooked by one of the digital ‘eyes’
A paved square at the new east entrance is overlooked by one of the digital ‘eyes’ · Credit: John James

The emerging design also had a major entrance to Southside. However, this was sacrificed in 2010, due to the introduction of the John Lewis store, which sits on the same corner as the doomed Stephenson Tower. This was seen as a curious move, considering the efforts that were made to open up the north-south route. However the irresistible draw of the never knowingly undersold outweighed the benefits of a major entrance to Southside. 

The project is underpinned by a series of radical yet eminently sensible design decisions. The footprint has been meticulously planned in terms of people movement and connectivity, while the complex levels are adeptly resolved. The elegant concourse, ticketing facilities and series of ‘departure lounges’ comfortably cope with the current capacity of 225,000 daily passengers, predicted to rise to 300,000 in the future. 

This design process was led by Network Rail’s head of design, Carole Stitchman, and Atkins and started some two years before the RIBA competition in 2007 to select the ‘concept designer’ for the atrium and envelope. Foreign Office Architects (later AZPML) were appointed for this role in 2008 and worked on the project until an acrimonious exit last year. 

The project is a great triumph. The frustrating thing is that it could actually have been a masterpiece

The cynics would say that when you start from such a low base, it is easy to improve a place – all things are relative and while this may fall short of an architectural ‘masterpiece’, the project is still a great triumph. The frustrating thing is that it could actually have been a masterpiece, but the convoluted team structure, aspects of the procurement and cost management prevented this (remember, it was built during a terrible recession), so the result seems an ‘austerity-light’ version of what could have been. 

ETFE is a clever roofing material, but whether it was lbs or £s that influenced the choice, the world’s best stations do tend to have glass roofs. As for the cladding of the steel trusses which span the atrium, this has been a point of enormous contention.  Alejandro Zaera Polo’s original intention was to clad the structure with a polished plaster surface to create the seamless, hand-finished undulating forms that rise up from the ground plane. 

However the construction management company, Mace, reputedly rejected this on technical grounds – or, according to Zaera Polo, brutally value engineered one of the most important aspects of the design. In addition, the west walkway was downgraded and did not receive the intended cladding treatment. After he walked off the project, this was reinterpreted by the Grand Central Shopping Centre architect, Haskoll. The redesigned solution has boarded columns, changing to a fabric cladding of the roof structure. 

Stainless steel cladding, rivetted on, was meant to be smoother but has a pleasing ‘handmade’ feel.
Stainless steel cladding, rivetted on, was meant to be smoother but has a pleasing ‘handmade’ feel. · Credit: John James

One can see why the white PVC tensile fabric was easier to use, given the amount the structure moves with thermal expansion and contraction. But it has already badly distorted and wrinkled in places and needs constant adjustment and tensioning. What will it look like in five, 10 years’ time? 

The external (over) cladding has also come under fire. AZPML’s CGIs illustrated a slick metal skin with secret fixings and ultra-fine joints, but this ultimately translated into a riveted fixing detail, with all the finesse of a blacksmith’s yard, rather than finely executed precision engineering – although the overall effect does have a charming hand-finished quality to it. The sinuous, mirror-polished form skirts around the perimeter of the building and is punctuated by the Bladerunneresque LED mesh screens. It is, however, visually jarring in places, and don’t look too closely at the external corners where two planes meet and disquieting gaps have opened up. As a piece of cosmetic surgery, this is slightly more back street than Harley Street, but it works and is a hit with the selfie generation. 

The AZPML component was about 6% of the £600m budget. Perhaps this element could and should have been ring-fenced. I don’t imagine these sorts of compromises would have been made on a TGV project. 

Despite these slight shortcomings, the project has restored the city’s civic pride. The station and mall are intricately woven into the fabric of the city and act as a giant magnet, attracting people like iron filings. 

As a passenger, this is a great station to use. The worst bit of the experience is arriving at Euston at the other end…

Bob Ghosh is director of K4 Architects, Birmingham