Birmingham’s citizens are currently debating the future of their version of the Natwest Tower, so should they preserve recent architectual history or knock it down and start again?
If you’ve ever walked up Colmore Row, Birmingham’s most chichi address and the heart of the city’s commercial district, you can’t but fail to have noticed the large concrete tower on the corner of Newhall Street.
Designed by leading local architect, John Madin, and completed in 1976, this is Birmingham’s very own NatWest Tower. It is also the subject of the latest planning controversy to hit the “second city” as Brum once again debates what to do with its brutalist architectural heritage.
In the words of Clive Dutton, the city council’s director of planning and regeneration, it is a “22-storey, obsolete, charmless building, not fit for purpose.” Mr Dutton is one of the many influential voices supporting British Land’s proposals for a new, 35-storey building for the site.
Not everyone agrees. The site is in the heart of the Colmore Conservation Area and a recent planning meeting expressed serious concerns about the size of the proposed new tower and the suitability of siting it so close to Brum’s Cathedral, Council House and the Town Hall. The argument goes that it would detract too much from the 19th century buildings in the locality. Separately, the existing building also has a lobby arguing for it to be listed as a prime example of Brum’s more recent architectural past.
Civic leaders are excited by the prospect of one of the country’s leading developers investing £160m in the heart of the city
The debate raises significant issues for the city. Its civic leaders have ambitious plans to increase Birmingham’s profile on the global stage and are excited by the prospect of one of the country’s leading developers investing £160m in the heart of the city. From their perspective, standing still is not an option. On the other hand, there are strong movements to preserve both what’s left of the city’s Victorian heritage and its more recent modernist past.
I must admit to finding the debate a bit confusing in the context of the existing tower. It seems to me that the criticisms of the new plans apply equally well to what’s there already – it’s not as if that blends in particularly well with the rest of the conservation area.
As for those who argue that the current building should be preserved, the problem is that it is empty and has been for some time. Significant grade A office space is currently springing up all over the city centre, and no one is suggesting that the existing building is attractive to prospective tenants. Preserving a building that no-one wants to occupy just for the sake of its heritage would seem to be a somewhat pyrrhic architectural victory as well as costing a lot of money.
Something’s going to have to happen to the site. The question for Brum is: what?