TV architect Kevin McCloud has mixed views about Birmingham’s architecture. Alison Jones reports.
There are parts of Birmingham design guru Kevin McCloud describes as “a gaping wound”. But we should learn to love its patchwork of building styles.
The city’s architecture acts, he says, as a living reminder of its vibrant and innovative history as the manufacturing heart of the country.
“There are places like Bath who derive their coherence from being principally one architectural style. When people try to impose later stuff it kind of jars because there is such a critical mass of 18th century buildings there.
“Birmingham is an industrial city which was not created in one moment, it grew.
“I think it is very important that we don’t fossilise places and that we do allow them to build and to layer.
“The thing I do like about Birmingham is, because it is built on uneven ground, there is this fantastic layering. You can be walking down a street, look over a bridge and see two storeys down and be looking back 150 years.
“It is like a hole in the ground which is a time tunnel.”
He admits that for every design gem there are buildings that have not stood the aesthetic test of time and have been, or need to be, torn down only a few decades after they were built.
“The negative is you end up with something like the railway station which is one of the ugliest buildings on the planet. For that matter you ended up with a kind of convoluted ring road around the Bullring in the ‘60s which favoured cars as opposed to pedestrians.
“But these things are redeemable. Boulevards are going to be created by the removal of the old library, it is going to be highly pedestrianised. I think cities are much more exciting to experience when you are able to walk them.
“I am a big fan of all those 19th century, red brick offices with the glazed terracotta fronts in the centre of Birmingham. I like the solidity and the fantastic quality of the building.
“Through all this you have got this lace work of canals which represents another aspect of the Industrial Revolution.
“It can sometimes be a gaping wound, but I would much rather that than something that is tidied up and pretty.
“If you go from Birmingham to Wolverhampton on the railway and you follow the canal there are derelict warehouses, offices, shops and homes. But again it is like a trip into the past. If you want to understand the Industrial Revolution in 20 minutes you can see it from that train.
“I love the richness and layering of that.
“Of course in the layering you get ugliness as well as beauty but so what? History is more vibrant for that I think.”
Kevin will be returning to the city to present the popular Grand Designs Live at the NEC (October 7-9). Now in its sixth year, it shows that, even in times of recession, there has been no waning of interest in ways to improve our home environment through makeovers or self build projects.
“I think people are changing their homes more than ever because they are staying put,” says Mr McCloud. “They are not treating their homes as disposable assets that they can carry on trading in order to move onwards and up.
“People have started decorating for themselves, not for a potential purchaser, and have developed a healthier relationship with the objects they put in their homes.
“I think we’ve moved from a period where we were consuming at a fantastic rate stuff which was, on the whole, badly made and not intended to last very long.
“When money is tight you question what you are going to spend it on. Maybe you come out of that thinking you are only going to buy things that mean something to you, that are well made and high quality,”
He says that on his annual pilgrimages to Birmingham he does take the opportunity to look around and assess the new developments.
At present he is reserving judgement on the city’s highest profile new build – the Library of Birmingham.
“It is going to be very big, isn’t it,” he says, cautiously.
“I look at that and think ‘the jury’s out’. I am completely not sure about it,
“I think that the decorative grille, although very pretty, might look very dated very quickly because it seems to be written in a language which is all over lampshade designs and wallpapers.