Birmingham is breaking out and bidding for space and beauty. Nick Hasell reports.
Just as Americans have jokes about Detroit, so we have ours about Birmingham, our own maligned motor city: jokes about the dense Brummie accent, the complexity of the road system and the expanses of brash concrete architecture. While, admittedly, little can be done to remedy the former, the city's landscape is proving rather more mutable. Over the last few years a series of large-scale service sector projects, the progeny of a new-found confidence, have been radically altering the face of the city; projects that, when completed, threaten to leave behind once and for all those well-worn jibes.
The origins of this apparent renaissance rest largely with the work of the Labour-led City Council, a bastion of old-style municipal patronage. To its advocates, it represents a model of both consensual government and commercial flair. No more so than in 1987 when, mindful of the near-catastrophe visited on the city by the decade's earlier recession, the council embarked on a £460 million investment programme aimed at long-term recovery. This year, its two flagship projects - the £160-million International Convention Centre (ICC) and neighbouring £51-million National Indoor Arena - opened with great ceremony and much talk of Birmingham's new post-industrial era. Certainly the glass walls of the ICC's atrium and silver tower of the adjacent Hyatt give all the outward signs of a burgeoning service economy. In their wake, it is hoped, will come conductors and conference delegates, and a host of private sector companies.
Whatever the economic spin-offs of these projects, the effect of their siting on the geography of Birmingham has been profound. The centre, disproportionately small for a city of its size, has for decades been contained by the tourniquet (and sometime racetrack) of the inner ring road. With the decision to focus development outside of this tight circle, its stranglehold has effectively been broken. This new sense of openness is most strikingly felt in the remodelled Centenary Square, a vast pedestrian space of fountains, sculpture and mosaics adjoining the ICC. Most significantly, where before it was linked to the centre by a dank subway, there now exists a broad street-level walkway; a rather subtle change, were it not for the fact the this bridging necessitated a £3 million scheme to lower an entire section of the dual-lane ring road.
Yet this amounts to more than a case of mere municipal landscaping. In August, for example, work started on pedestrianising some of the city's main thorough fares. At the same time the council are dissuading traffic from using the inner ring road in favour of its counterpart a kilometre or so further out. In a city which, for the last 30 years, has slavishly moulded itself to the needs of the car, all this appears something of a volte face. Steadily but inexorably, the tunnel and-flyover vision of the late Sir Herbert Manzoni - city engineer and architect of 1960s Birmingham - is being supplanted by a philosophy decidedly green.
This summer a council official announced what, up until recently, would have been unthinkable: 'I believe that people should have priority over traffic.' These days the talk is of boulevards rather than expressways and such heresies pass almost unnoticed. Just as the city's economic dependence on the car has diminished so, it seems, has its transport policy.
The apotheosis of this revolution looks set to arrive later this decade with the opening of the Midland Metro, a 200 km. light rail system that, given the necessary funding, will eventually link the city to the West Midland's major regions via a 12-line network. The driving force behind this £1-billion scheme is Phil Bateman, a Wolverhampton councillor and chairman of transport body Centro, who in turn has taken inspiration from the transit systems already in place in European cities such as Grenoble and Hanover. Though a tireless promoter of the benefits of the 'supertram' - the articulated, single-deck vehicles that will run through the city's streets - Bateman does not overlook the implicit ironies: namely, what he bluntly describes as 'the barmy structural changes which mean that we are now re-inventing a system that was invented at the turn of the century'.
Such circularity aside, Bateman readily admits that linking together a conurbation of 2.5 million people is not the easiest of tasks. An earlier light rail project foundered in 1985 after disagreements over the routes and opposition to plans to demolish obstructing houses. This time the path of the first line, a 21-km. route from Birmingham smoothed both by Parliamentary approval and the existence of a suitable, disused trackbed. The necessary government funding, however, while expected shortly, has yet to be announced; around 15% of the total £81 million will then be sought from the private sector. The plans for the second and third lines, awaiting Royal Assent in November, are both more complex and more costly, the former requiring the excavation of three kilometres of tunnel beneath the city centre.
As well as the immediate gains to the city in terms of construction jobs, Bateman emphasises the developmental effect of the lines crossing some of the region's most blighted industrial landscape. To this end, he dismisses the idea of a short term quick fix to the city's problems, transportational or otherwise, rather proclaiming the project 'a statement in metal and concrete of a faith in Birmingham's future'. Rhetoric apart, Centro must contend with the long-standing stigma which many still attach to public transport - persuading commuters to leave their cars and their prejudices at home may yet prove the greatest obstacle of all. Birmingham's continued congestion is its greatest ally.
In this brave new city of metros, conference halls and walkways one vital element is missing; according to John Newman, retail director of developers London and Edinburgh Trust (LET), Birmingham is 'seriously undershopped'. This too, however, is set to change with their plans for a 26-acre complex of shops, restaurants and offices on the site of the existing Bull Ring. Having acquired the site in 1987, LET's £500-million scheme was approved last December after three years of wrangling.
Yet while few of Birmingham's inhabitants will rue the levelling of the current Bull Ring - held up by many as an object lesson in brutalist '60s architecture - some have expressed concern as to the fate of the Rotunda, the city's landmark cylindrical building. Under LET's plans the Rotunda will make way for an angular 30-storey tower. Of late it has acquired something of the status of a valued design curiousity, unrecognised by the authorities, however, who have rejected a listings application. With the tide of opinion against them, its advocates should perhaps face the inevitable; a recent survey found 80% of its present occupants in favour of demolition. The novelty of circular offices, it seems, like that of racetracks and subways before them, has long since worn off.