Sunday, August 03, 2014

[The Life of Shaun #499] Building a Better Brum

Birmingham, or Brum, as it is affectionately called, is the UK's second city (although Greater Manchester/Liverpool, which are contiguous, have more people when taken collectively - but they would never countenance being lumped together).  It is most well know for being the second city, a (wrongly, IMHO) derided accent, for having ripped up much of its historic centre to build ring roads and motorways in a post-war bid to become Britain's most modern city, and the Bullring shopping centre.  When you tell people you are visiting Birmingham, they are not struck with envy.  Most pull a sour face and ask why; at best they are at a loss to say anything about the city.  Despite a metropolitan population of 3.7m, Birmingham goes pretty much unnoticed by the rest of the UK, and certainly by Londoners.

Undaunted (or perhaps enticed), my flatmate Marco and I took a £15 return trip last weekend to see what the lack of fuss was about.  What we found was, surprisingly, a city with much to offer.  Tired of its maligned reputation and losing business, talent and its young to London and Manchester, Birmingham has been working over the past decade or two to undo some of the damage it inflicted upon itself in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Like all UK cities other than London, Birmingham has a distinct and sole city centre, in and around which most of the redevelopment is occurring.  The most famous of these schemes is the Bullring Shopping Centre, and specifically its fantastic, blobistic Selfridges.  This building deservedly became an instant icon when it was opened, and is Birmigham's boldest effort to reinvent itself.

Bullring to the right, the Rotunda (an office block turned into flats) at the left.

Bullring up close.

The original post-war Bull Ring* redevelopment.

I never saw Brum before the new Bullring, but its city centre is now bustling and prosperous, and the charming streets around it full and lively.

Another signature development is the Library of Birmingham, which is certainly eye-catching, if a bit gauche.  However, any misgivings one might have from the outside, they're sure to be won over on the inside.  Recognising the digital age in which it was built, the architects have turned the library into a destination more than a store of books.  With meeting rooms, rooftop gardens, and cavernous spaces, it is a place to congregate, work and study, and it was being used enthusiastically when we visited.

The library faces a handsome new square.

The square is also home to Birmingham's Symphony Hall.

Marco in the rooftop "Secret Garden".

The library stands just North of a series of canals ("More canals than Venice", you will read again and again) that were thankfully neglected by the post-war city planners and still exist today absent unforgiving buildings and, mostly, of giant roadworks.  They are now becoming fashionable places to walk and socialise, and are lined with outdoor restaurants, bars, caf├ęs and live music stands.  And despite the post-war planners' efforts, quite a lot of original - or at least original-looking - and nice modern architecture survive around the city.

One of the canals. (A plug for Ju Ju's, where we had an awesome canalside lunch.)

City centre street.

Lovely Art Neuveau(ish?) building.

The beautiful law courts also survived the wrecking ball.

Memorial to those killed and injured in the WWII air raids.

However, throughout the city, surrounding the signature developments and classically charming architecture, the original brutalist redevelopment that gave Birmingham its sullied reputation dominates the city.  Some of it is quite striking today, but much of it is uninspired and won't be missed once gone.

Brum is a multicultural city with large South Asian and Afro-Carribean communities, visible across the city...

...including shop signs making big promises...

...and food kiosks divided into culturally sensitive categories.

I was more impressed with Brum than I thought I would be.  The city has a lot of good going on, the people were friendly, the nightlife fun and varied (and mostly absent of hen parties).  It still has some work to do, though, if it is to compete with London or, more realistically, Manchester.  The city "centre" is more sprawling and unwalkable than Manchester's, and the redevelopment points are disjointed and separated by wide, fume-filled roads, pedestrian-unfriendly roundabouts and dual carriageways, making it a city that's still beholden to the car.  It's going to take some effort to pull it all together into a cohesive, urban whole that can attract secondary business and the creative set the way Manchester has, but it certainly doesn't deserve the dire reputation it has.  That Birmingham was buried beneath the rubble of the original Bull Ring.

*For the word nerds, Bull Ring refers to the square and also the original shopping centre; the newer incarnation was fashioned as Bullring, an etymological shift that caused much consternation and tut-tutting amongst certain sects.

Shaun H. Coley | Shadwell | Tower Hamlets | London E1 | UK |
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