Eastside: by Ally Standing
Eastside: History, Creativity and Possibility
Walk eastward from the Bullring and you will find yourself within one of the most rapidly changing areas of the city. Eastside is a part of Birmingham which, especially over recent years, has been developed almost beyond recognition, much of this urban progress forming part of the council’s Big City Plan launched in 2010, a scheme which set out plans for city-centre improvements over the next two decades. This area, which was historically a thriving hub of industry, has now become a centre of creativity and education. Despite these recent and drastic changes, Eastside is an area whose past is rich, and whose varied and changing functional zones make it one of the city’s most historically significant places.
Masshouse Circus, a large elevated road junction built in the 1960s which formed part of the inner ring road, restricted development to the east of the city centre, hence its nickname ‘the concrete collar’. In 2002, the ‘concrete collar’ was broken, a demolition which allowed the city centre to begin to spread eastward. The development has seen the creation of an ‘education quarter’ to the immediate east of the centre, in the proximity of Aston University, which includes 2002’s Millennium Point, Birmingham Metropolitan College, (formerly Matthew Boulton) Birmingham Ormiston Academy and BCU’s new city centre campus, as well as several new blocks of student accommodation.
In the space between this ‘education quarter’ and the city centre, apartments and hotels have been developed, and architecturally, it is a perfect area in which one can reflect upon Birmingham’s shifting aesthetic ideals: huge postmodern behemoths, such as 2012’s gleaming and angular Hotel Latour, spring up rapidly alongside neglected, derided, and soon-to-be lost modern structures such as the Albert St car park and former Toys ‘R’ Us building. It is a strange mix of architectural styles, which to the urban wanderer, presents itself as a futuristic dreamscape of sorts.
During the Industrial Revolution, the area now known as Eastside was an important and thriving part of the city, the Digbeth Branch and Grand Union canals which bisect it allowing access to the myriad factories and workshops in the area. However in the late 19th and 20th century industry in the area declined, the Victorian factories and workshops fell into disrepair and the canals became dirty, with only small sections being cleaned.
Many of these industrial buildings still stand to this day, and though many are still not in use, many of them have been repurposed. Today Eastside is the area of the city with the most studios, artist-run spaces and galleries, for instance Eastside Projects, Grand Union, and Vivid Projects to name but a few. Several years ago an advice and guidance document called Public Art in Birmingham Eastside advocating the ‘integration of artists’ thinking, work and creative process into a significant city centre regeneration initiative’ was developed by a team of urban designers, and was used by the city council who worked on a Public Art Strategy embodying the values of the document. Another building in the area which although usually closed to the public, has been used creatively, is Curzon Street Station.
This station, originally known simply as ‘Birmingham’, was opened in 1838 and served as a passenger station until 1893, when all passenger routes were diverted to the new and more conveniently situated ‘Grand Central’ station of 1846 which soon became known as Birmingham New Street. Last year, Curzon Street Station was open to the public for a short time, playing host to an exhibition by Birmingham’s Hidden Spaces, a photographical project which, as its name would suggest, aims to show a different side of the city not normally seen by the public. There were suggestions that the Curzon Street building might be repurposed as ‘Ikon 2’, a new museum of photography for the city, but sadly, these visions were never realised.
As well as developments which have already taken place or are underway, many more are planned for the area, notably the proposed Birmingham terminus for the High Speed 2 railway line, which will incorporate the aforementioned Curzon Street Station building and is expected to take the same name as it. The development is planned to use the area behind the Curzon Street building, a wide open space which for many years has been a popular spot for skateboarders and graffiti writers, yet devoid of other use. Though High Speed 2 seems a certainty, political and economic factors have slowed planning developments, and its projected timescale is somewhat dubious to say the least. There have also been other developments planned for the area which never came to fruition, for instance the VTP200, a ‘VerTiPlex’ theme park which was granted planning permission in 2010, and which was to be the city’s tallest building and was to include five rides, a hotel and restaurants.
As well as its importance during the Industrial Revolution, the area now known as Eastside has a history which stretches back much further. The tribe/people of Beorma, the first known settlers in what we now know as Birmingham, are thought to have originally settled close to the crossing of the River Rea in Digbeth, a river which flows to the extreme east of the Eastside area but which is mainly hidden by walls built in Victorian times. In Medieval times, most of the Eastside area was covered by farmland, much of which was bought by the monarchs of the time and used as deer hunting game park. The only surviving part of this land which has not been built on is Park St Gardens, which was formerly the graveyard of St. Bartholomew’s church, which was first built in 1749, but sadly had to be demolished in 1943 after having been badly damaged by a German bomb.
Of all of Birmingham city centre, it is Eastside which as an area, has developed and changed most over recent years. It is also an area with a rich and fascinating history, which stretches as far back as Birmingham’s history goes. 2010’s Big City Plan has seen the development of many new apartment blocks and hotel buildings, as well as an ‘education quarter’ unlike any that has been in the city centre before. As well as education, Eastside is a hotbed of artistic activity, with more artist-run spaces and studios than anywhere else in the city. This area, which has shifted from industry and production to creativity and education, is a perfect place in which to reflect upon how the city is changing both architecturally and otherwise, and with many new developments likely over the coming years as the city spreads eastward, it is full of possibility.