The Bold and the Beautiful
Whilst enjoying a walking tour of our fine city one spring morning recently, the tour leader commented on Birmingham’s love for bold and iconic architecture.
While it’s easy to think of the Library of Birmingham and the Selfridges building at the Bullring as examples of the city’s striking architecture, this is not a modern phenomenon. In fact, the Rotunda, arguably until recently the most recognisable building to those outside the city, was, at its inception in the 1960s, a pioneer in its own way. When it was built in 1965, it was a one-off, with nothing else like it in the country, much like more modern buildings, and it did indeed divide opinion. But by the 1980s, it was so beloved of Brummies that calls to demolish it were wholeheartedly shouted down, and it achieved listed status in 2000.
At the University of Birmingham, just a few miles away, bold and iconic buildings have been as embedded in the institution’s DNA as that of the city from the very first structures which were completed in 1909. From Aston Webb’s beautiful redbrick creations to the new and eye-catching library under construction today, the University’s estate represents innovative buildings from every era across the last century.
The Aston Webb building, the Byzantine redbrick range which forms the physical heart of the campus, was the first building on campus and from the outset was designed to be pioneering and different to anything which had been seen before in a university setting. As the home of the first civic university in the country, Aston Webb wanted to make an impact with his buildings – and, moreover, to distance the University of Birmingham from the Oxbridge colleges rather than try to replicate them.
While the architecture of Oxbridge colleges drew upon the Gothic and Tudor styles, Aston Webb and his fellow architect Ingress Bell chose to design their masterpiece using a Byzantine influence. This was a deliberate choice as it was viewed as a more universal system of design which reflected the focus on science which the new University was to have. Indeed, the entirety of Chancellor’s Court remains a geometric space, with clean and clear lines and a structured form, reflecting the architects’ desire to imitate science and fact through their work.
This modern approach was also undertaken in their choice of materials with the red bricks for which the University is today so famous, calling to mind Westminster Cathedral which had recently been completed when Webb and Bell were carrying out their work. And to crown it all, the Joseph Chamberlain memorial clock tower was created as a landmark to announce the existence of the University. Famously modelled on the Torre del Mangia, a medieval clock tower that forms part of the Town Hall in Siena, Italy, it remains the tallest freestanding clock tower in the world.
But the desire to create new and varied buildings did not end with Webb and Bell – and, in fact, the listed buildings on the University campus are not restricted to the earliest buildings. The Metallurgy and Materials building, erected in 1964 is a Grade II listed building, and, in the same way that the Rotunda in the city centre broke new ground, so did the Pritchatt’s Road construction.
It was the first major building in England to use a ‘tartan grid’ to incorporate servicing which became a big influence on buildings elsewhere and its unique design is evident in every view of the building with its exposed concrete and large glass windows presenting a distinctive look to the north area of campus. Other buildings of the same era, such as the swirled Ashley building, demonstrate that new architectural ground has continually been broken on the Edgbaston site throughout the decades.
And now, with the University undergoing the most extensive redevelopment of this campus since its inception, several new buildings are rapidly taking shape. The new sports centre being constructed on the Bristol Road will be a new gateway to the University for students, staff and the local community. It will be a large building, but bright, light and airy, with the ability to connect easily with the very centre of campus via a new path up the hill to those aforementioned redbrick buildings.
Once you arrive on campus, the other major new building currently under construction will become obvious, in the form of the new University library. It will eventually sit on the new green heart which will be opened up in the middle of campus, and therefore, has been designed to take advantage of the stunning vistas across campus, allowing as much natural light into the building as possible. It’s certainly bold, and it’s certainly something different – and it’s been designed to fit into a campus with a wide array of architectural styles, providing a modern, iconic look, and all the while respecting the context of the much-loved Aston Webb range.
The building will be characterised by its golden fins which clad the external façade – they will perform both a decorative function, glinting in the sunlight and brightening duller days, but they will also have a very practical function, acting as shades to help regulate the temperature inside, cutting down on the energy consumption of the new building. Inside, study desks will be placed at the windows, with the shelving placed away from them, to ensure that people, rather than books and journals, benefit from the views and natural light.
And, on the ground floor of this inspirational library will be a public event space, providing improved opportunities for the local community to visit the University. It will be a place in which the University’s incredible creative work and research outputs are showcased for the benefit of all – encased in another example of Birmingham’s love for iconic, bold and beautiful buildings.