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Part 1: Bold and Beautiful – Birmingham is exciting

By Katie Hughes 5 Nov 2014

One of the things I love about my hometown of Birmingham is its ability to keep reinventing itself, resulting in an eclectic mix of buildings and varying architectural styles. Birmingham is a place which is not afraid to take risks and make bold statements and over time has drastically transformed its architectural image.

Birmingham has unfortunately in the past acquired a reputation for being devoid of any architectural worth; a concrete jungle of 1960’s tower blocks. There certainly are still traces of the mistakes of the post-war development boom still present across the city but there is also a wealth of beautiful buildings both old and new. There are landmark buildings such as the Rotunda, Selfridges and the new Library of Birmingham, as well as historical delights such as the terracotta Victoria Law Courts and the Georgian St Pauls Square. It is this variety which makes Birmingham a vibrant and interesting place to visit and as an architect I never tire of finding new places to explore.

There has been significant investment and regeneration in the city centre over the past 20 years and the redevelopment of New Street Station and the Grand Central Shopping Centre is the latest project set to make its mark on the physical fabric of the city.  It is this evolving cityscape and investment in future regeneration which makes Birmingham an exciting place to be right now. It doesn’t always get it right and many of its architectural choices (both past and present) have raised eyebrows but wouldn’t it be boring if everywhere looked the same?

Birmingham’s transformation into the modern city we see today began during the industrial revolution where it grew from a medieval market town into a thriving powerhouse of industry.  Little remains of the city pre-18th century apart from a small number of half-timber buildings such as Blakesley Hall (Yardley 1590). However the remains of its industrial heyday are still very much evident in the workshops and warehouses which line the streets of areas such as the Jewellery Quarter. Engineering pioneers Matthew Boulton and James Watt played a significant part in the industrialisation of the city which saw vast growth in industry and commerce. Factories were built, the population soared and urban boundaries expanded resulting in the erection of new public facilities and civic buildings such as the Neo Classical Town Hall (1834) & Council House (1879). Transport links also increased and the new railway lines and waterways which zigzagged throughout the city remain a distinctive feature to this day.

Birmingham became a major player in the manufacture of steel, steam engines, and jewellery – earning it the nickname ‘the city of a thousand trades’.  It gained a reputation for specialising in highly skilled innovative work and this industrialised image of Birmingham has remained with it ever since, even though manufacturing has declined dramatically over the past few decades. For me the Jewellery Quarter epitomises this period in history with its narrow streets, crammed with old brick warehouses and workshops. It still has a thriving jewellery trade to this day and is truly a remarkable place, almost frozen in time with what must be the largest concentration of listed buildings in the Midlands.

Photography by Katie Hughes

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