Herbert Wright wonders if Birmingham is going round in circles
On 8 October 1965, prime minister Harold Wilson opened London’s GPO (now BT) Tower and, via the new microwave link, called George Barrow, lord mayor of Birmingham. Barrow could have complained. His city’s sister tower was a 152m-high bare, square concrete stick, while London’s was the brilliantly bizarre rotunda-headed national icon. Second best has long done for Second City. Some say the Brummies like to moan, but I suspect Barrow was too polite.
There seemed little to moan about at Birmingham’s cute little Moor Street station on NS2 (that’s Normal Speed 2, as opposed to Virgin’s NS1, or – arriving nowhere soon – HS2). The city is visibly refreshed by its new library, canalsides and pedestrianised shopping streets are thronged, industrial premises are far from vacant with Mittelstand firms, art and music is alive in Digbeth, and after dark, sportswear is no longer compulsory. After the last century’s near-death experiences of the blitz, ruthless redevelopment, no-mercy road schemes and the wheels falling off the motor industry, Birmingham has bounced back big time. Even New Street Station, against which Euston looked positively glamorous, is getting a make-over in Foreign Office’s shiny deconstructivist/Gehryesque remodelling.
From an urbanistic viewpoint, Bimingham raises some interesting questions. Does the city offer clues about what London would be like if 15 years of foreign slush money hadn’t driven development, and mayors were unelected? Can something be salvaged from the legacy of 60s motorway madness? And does Birmingham have a secret protocol about circles – yes, the geometric ones?
Birmingham’s centre may bustle like London’s, but is cycle-free, public transport is basically just buses, car parks proliferate, and multi-lane A-roads are impossible to cross by foot. Some patches, still untouched by regeneration, feel like declining American inner city. In 2008, even Birmingham City Council got confused, depicting the Birmingham, Alabama, skyline on a leaflet distributed city-wide. But city pride is resurgent. Light rail is coming into its heart. There’s a Big City Plan – large on offices, public realm and traffic-free routes. It includes creating Golden Square, not square at all but a focus for the Jewellery Quarter, which is rather like Hoxton after a city-evacuation order.
City status was achieved only in 1889. If all buildings exactly 1,889m from Paradise Circus are plotted on a map, they actually form a circle. Uncanny
I wonder if a secret protocol really is in play. Recalling the city’s popular 60s icon, the 25-storey Rotunda, Birmingham has been subtly working circles back in. Its new library is covered in 5,357 of them, and Future Systems’ globular Selfridges has 15,000. John Lewis will be round. Bizarrely, considering its inland position, Birmingham has not pigeons but seagulls – which wheel round in circles. There’s more. City status was achieved only in 1889. If all buildings exactly 1,889m from Paradise Circus are plotted on a map, they actually form a circle. Uncanny.
Big arcs bring me round to the motorways, specifically Spaghetti Junction. Loopy road confluences worldwide are named after it – it has international importance. Birmingham should celebrate that with a visitor’s centre. An observation tower could look down on the graceful concrete curves and constant kinetic spectacle of traffic. Of course, the high platform would have to be circular, and as high as the telecom rotunda that London got in 1965, but Birmingham was denied.
Trained physicist Herbert Wright is an architectural writer, historian and art critic
Strike a light!
Canals have become busy foot and cycle corridors through urban centres, Birmingham especially, but they still remain unlit. Crime can lurk after dark. The Canal & River Trust seems to have no policy on this. Here’s a thought – make planning permission for chic canalside developments conditional on installing a quota of lighting. It needn’t be adjacent, but in offsite dodgy stretches – just like much affordable housing is.