Sunday, March 23, 2008

Birmingham's relentless bulldozing work

How many more clone-Shopping Malls before the city is declared "FULLY REGENERATED"?

As this website is called Hagley Road to Ladywood, it's about time we review the ongoing changes in one of the most significant areas of inner city Birmingham. The intersection called Five Ways, in particular, is already looking unrecognisable.

First off, it looks like the powers that be have declared war to any type of 1960's architecture, whether that may be 'concrete jungle' like Lee Bank's recently blown down tower blocks, or outstanding gems like John Madin's Birmingham Post & Mail or the award-winning Chamber of Commerce just off Five Ways. Yet, it's worth a scratch on the head or two when Stephenson Tower, or other buildings that wouldn't have gone amiss in Soviet-era Kazakhstan, is still standing right in the middle of town.

Another question that your average Brummie may ask is: how many shopping mall-hotel-(extortionate) battery apartment-parking space combos does a city centre need exactly? Aside from the universally celebrated Mailbox and Bullring, at the turn of the century the fancily named Broadway Plaza was built, providing central Birmingham with more of the usual food chains and hastily assembled prefab apartments half the size but ten times the price of post-war council flats. However, at least Broadway Plaza provided a disused area with some character. Not to mention a state-of-the-art bowling alley that is second to none.

Then, the other day, the 1960s Edgbaston Shopping Centre was knocked down. It's quite baffling when people talk about dilapidated buildings that had to go and they don't realise the same buildings were deliberately left to rot for years with an eye on the clock and the other on the wrecking ball. Simply put, if you neglect them, they're bound to look crap. The old shopping centre is now going to be replaced by the £110m Edgbaston Galleries project. According to the developers, the 424,500 sq ft is "the largest regeneration project of a principal gateway to Birmingham", featuring "foodstore, retail and leisure space, Grade A offices, hotel accomodation and 800 car parking spaces". Just across the road, two modernist buildings, Donne and Nettleton towers have recently made way for the construction of the new Calthorpe House. But the next one to bite the dust is going to be the 1960s-era Five Ways Shopping Centre.

As tenants were required to vacate the building a while back, you'll hear more talks of "another derelict eyesore" that needs clearing out. Those of you who cherish fond memories of the old XLs rock club will be familiar with the imposing white-clad construction and its internal, circular courtyard that was home to a number of independent shops and cafes. Admittedly, it was hardly the Trevi Fountain. However, that's going to go too (the 60s centre, not the Trevi Fountain). And guess what's going to be stuck there instead? A £100m, 1.25 acre site comprising a 28-storey tower and more "luxury apartments, hotels, shopping-mall, restaurants and cafes". The new Five Ways Shopping Centre. As "regeneration" is the token word here, I presume it may be legitimate to wonder how many branches of Boots the chemist, Subway sandwiches or other clone town shops Birmingham can host in a square mile before initial excitement gives way to dust on the shelves and everything-must-go sales.

More to the point, is there really such a major demand for three shopping mall-hotel-(extortionate) battery apartment-parking space combos, especially when they're literally going to face one another? Just to recap, Five Ways island alone will feature Five Ways Shopping Centre, Edgbaston Galleries, Broadway Plaza. And, lest we forget, a few steps down the road there's the new Edgbaston Mill (on the site of the old BBC Pebble Mill landmark). Apart from the commercial sustainability and the clonetown implication of so many shopping malls, there are the recent reports alleging that the Birmingham city centre property market may have begun its slowdown phase.

Apartments have been built in their tens of thousands in just a few years, perhaps exceeding demand. As detractors of 1960s "concrete jungle" are keen to point out, people prefer houses. That was one of the reasons why the brutalist monsters of post-war architecture were being blown down like pins down a bowling alley. But the contradiction becomes apparent when the replacement is just more of the same, or even more brutalistic (just to get an idea take a look around those anonymous, humongous ones near the Mailbox). They may have fancy names and a splatter of colourful paint, but have you peeped at the price? And, more importantly, have you looked inside?

Two years ago, in an interview on the subject, Birmingham's architectural legend John Madin criticised "a lack of comprehensive plan to how the city should evolve over the years". At Hagley Road to Ladywood, we beg to disagree. The plan is clear alright. Closing theme: Pink Floyd, Money.

*COPYRIGHT NOTE: The photo at the top (Edgbaston Shopping Centre in the run up to demolition) is by Flickr user feltip1982. If you feel there was any inaccurate crediting, please contact us and we'll be happy to rectify.


Anonymous said...

isnt it sad that the only thing our "developers" can think of to "regenerate" an area is yet another shopping f*·%ing mall??
And then they deny its to do with the cu$$$ng profits...:::!:
Why cant they build something beautiful? Something with history? A shopping mall is bound to look grey and reek of piss the moment the initial excitmenet goes and walls start fading and shops go into liquidation.


Banbury said...

mate, did you actually ever look at the state of that stuff they just flattened??? And, i mean do you ever look at that Library bang in the middle of town and think "oh what a beauty"? I mean, c'mon...!

Anonymous said...

Ditto Banbury. I'm no fan of mixed-use ubiquity but (and without knowing the exact plans for each) I certainly won't miss Edgbaston Shopping Centre, Five Ways Shopping Centre or Paradise Circus.

In fact, if I had the time (or, let's be honest, the inclination) to volunteer my services, I'd be there with my sledgehammer.

claude said...

But no-one is saying that these buldings are "beautiful"!

It really is quite simple. The point is really that demolition (and open building sites for the following few years) shouldn't be viewed out of context.

If Paradise Forum was to be replaced by a Victorian shopping arcade, or a top Museum, I'd say bring in the bulldozers and do so straightaway.

But if all that mess is going to be done for yet another anonoymous "mixed-use" prefab shite (as well as the benefit of some millionaire developers) that will age within 20years then, I'm dead against it.

Seriously, 'maaaan", do you really want each single city in Britain to have no defining feature???

Birmingham's not the only one. Sheffield, Cardiff, Manchester, they're all building loads of Edgbaston Galleries and they all look absolutely the same!

So, to cut the crap, please do not view demolition out of context and "without knowing the exact plans for each".