In the thick of it

Birmingham’s school of architecture, training ground for local architects, is poised to move into the city centre. What does it mean for the school and the city’s architecture?

The new Birmingham Institute of Architecture and Design and a second project for the university, both designed by Associated Architects, edge one corner of Eastside Park.
The new Birmingham Institute of Architecture and Design and a second project for the university, both designed by Associated Architects, edge one corner of Eastside Park.

‘Birmingham is one of the few big UK cities to have just one architecture school,’ says James Hall. As a director of Associated Architects he is representative of one of the largest of the city’s practices and one that has been shaped since its inception by tutors of the Birmingham School of Architecture at Birmingham City University, some of whom founded the firm. Head of school Kevin Singh estimates that over 40 years on, 30 of the practice’s 50 staff have been taught not just at the university but by him personally. 

And now Associated Architects is shaping the school itself. North east of Selfridges and Moor Street Station in the regeneration area christened Eastside a decade ago in line with the city’s ambitions for the area, the cladding is going up on the form of the new Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (BIAD). It will house not only the school of architecture but also students studying fashion and design. Like Foreign Office Architects’ Ravensbourne College and Steven Holl’s Glasgow School of Art, the building is charged with fostering creative collaboration across disciplines. The buzzphrase is ‘exquisite collisions,’ with an atrium joining the spaces and the architects threading the staircase past a series of spatial events – a weaving workshop here, an animation studio there. ‘It should undo the territories of our existing buildings,’ says Singh. 

‘BIAD is influencing thinking about teaching. The school of architecture is looking at an increasing number of digital presentations in crits, following the lead of practice presentations’

It is also influencing thinking about teaching. The school of architecture is looking at an increasing number of digital presentations in crits, following the lead of practice presentations, bypassing the inequitable costs and complexities of printing and also, says Singh, influenced by the large stretches of glass façade and the open atrium. ‘There is not much wall space for pin-ups,’ he explains. ‘It has that open plan quality and you have to take advantage of the consequences.’

But the school is not limited to its own building. ‘We talk about the city as a studio,’ says Singh. Over the last couple of years it has taken advantage of a large presentation space at Glenn Howells Architects’ office, which has proved a great base for live projects and work with the community and practices. There is also a scheme to leverage the architectural expertise through the teaching practices scheme. Each MArch unit is paired with a practice and students can book a weekly tutorial with the firm in its offices as well as their unit-based tutorial. The four practices – Make, Glenn Howells, Bryant Priest Newman and D5 – are all based around in the city centre, which will be significantly closer for students in their new Eastside building. 

‘The school is not limited to its own building. “We talk about the city as a studio,” says Singh’

Close connections

‘Graduate retention [in the city] is really high,’ says Singh. ‘It gives practices an umbilical chord to the school.’ He never finds himself short of volunteer critics and is in the fortunate position of being able to find a friend in most practices, whether he wants to arrange site buildings, know about a building or get hold of a visiting tutor. ‘It is an amazing network.’ One local observer points out that this is as much the personal network of well-connected Singh, who has been at the school for 20 years, as the inherent network of the school itself. But the school has also worked closely with RIBA West Midlands on events and with the council through studies on the city’s housing and research into the area between Solihull and Birmingham. 

The school’s strategy of putting itself at the heart of the architectural culture in the city will now be mirrored by its location. Singh delights in the fact that commuting tutors and students (20% of 225 undergraduates and 50% of postgraduates are part time and some come in from as far away as Wales) will soon have just a 10 minute walk from Birmingham New Street to their lecture halls and seminar rooms. This compares to the walk beyond the inner ring road to  Gosta Green. It could also enable school events and visiting lecturers to attract more practitioners. 

‘It will be better when we move, being at the heart of things,’ Singh says. And on its doorstep will be Patel Taylor and Alain Provost’s new Eastside Park which forms the centrepiece of the masterplanned Eastside. Singh went to the opening late last year. He was impressed: ‘Can you believe it? This is our front garden, our break out space.’ 

Reaching out beyond the building – Edible Eastside, a community collaboration designing a productive urban landscape.
Reaching out beyond the building – Edible Eastside, a community collaboration designing a productive urban landscape.

But it is not as central as was originally planned. Both building and park reflect the impact on the site of proposals for the High Speed 2 Birmingham line. It is due to land in the old Curzon Street Station. Associated Architects’ Hall describes how he found out: ‘I was watching the news and there was Gordon Brown standing on our site saying HS2 is coming.’ Less than three  years ago Associated Architects was in despair about the way its £120m city centre campus for Birmingham City University was on hold. City architect Bob Ghosh detailed how HS2 was leaving a huge area of the city in limbo but also some of the grand plans for it (RIBAJ May 2011).  

For the university HS2 meant scrapping the planning permission and the £60m phase one designs that were already out to tender as the land was claimed for the train. The new site was far smaller and, with existing premises at Gosta Green disposed of to Aston University the move date was fixed; so the pressure was on. The new plots are a little further from the city centre but the one designated for BIAD adjoins Grimshaw’s Millennium Point in which the university is already one of the biggest tenants – a bridge link will allow easier sharing of facilities. The second phase, due for completion in 2015, will have the formal role of terminating Eastside Park.

Birmingham City University’s park end grandstand and the rejigged plots foreshortened the 2006 competition-winning design for a linear park connecting city centre and canalside, and took the canal out of the equation. The question of how the park terminates has been recognised by the university’s vice chancellor who drew together a panel specially to consider this. The View over the Park committee, as it was called, included both Singh and an associate dean of BIAD and landscape architect Derek Cassidy. It worked with the architects and planners over five or six months to get the best out of the building and site for the whole park. Singh is particularly pleased with the way the relationship with the park itself has been improved with some money put towards the integration of the park right up to the front door of phase 2.

But around the park uncertainty and empty building plots will remain until the ground works for HS2 eventually get under way. Until then, the school of architecture will look out onto its own regeneration laboratory. The city, which the school is so much a part of, still awaits the delayed arrival of Eastside.


A New Frame

· Credit: Timothy Soar

Eastside Park is designed to bring formality and structure to the district using echoes of the old road patterns. ‘There were lots of random things envisaged for the area,’ says Andrew Taylor of Patel Taylor, which designed the park along with Alain Provost. ‘So the park is a strong frame.’ Avenues of trees, planted ‘rooms’ and outsize Corten frames stress the linearity of the space along with lines of granite and precast concrete, while being softened by a haze of silver birches.