Architecture: Let's not charge into the Bull Ring

The concrete eyesore at the heart of Birmingham is set to get a makeover. But will good design succumb to commercial pressures? By Chris Arnot
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A BRIGHT yellow band encircles one of the highest floors of Birmingham's Rotunda, like a special offer round a giant can of lager. The message scrawled upon it in huge black letters reads "It's Time For A Change At The Bull Ring". An irrefutable sentiment, to be sure. Nearly 40 years have passed since the last major change at the Bull Ring and the results have hardly stood the test of time. Indeed, the ancient core of England's second city eventually evolved into a national joke.

The days have long gone since Brummies didn't give a damn what the rest of the country thought. Manufacturing's sharp decline in the 1980s and the consequent need to build up service industries brought a new awareness of the city centre's drawbacks. The city started talking to potential re-developers of the Bull Ring as long ago as 1987. Twelve years on and a pounds 400m scheme is close to being approved.

The city's planning committee withheld consent because the centre will be closed at night and pedestrians are expected to walk past through a glass tunnel, which one councillor has described as "a mugger's paradise". But once adjustments have been made, there's little doubt that the development will go ahead. Advertisements placed in Euston Station by Hammerson UK Properties are already promising "New Bull Ring. New Shopping. New Birmingham".

We shall be well into the next century before we can judge the reality. Whatever Hammerson comes up with is bound to be seen as an improvement - except by market traders who are up in arms at the prospect of being moved from the place where stalls have stood for 800 years to a smaller site further away from the city centre.

Seasoned observers of the local scene are not exactly overjoyed either. "The thinking seems to be that you can't have an attractive open space with a messy market in it. That's total nonsense," says Joe Holyoak, 54, an architect and urban designer who is also a reader at the Birmingham School of Architecture. "Hammerson talks, as developers always do, about bringing in street entertainers. But if you take away markets from the centre, you're taking away life. There are still areas where fundamental mistakes are being made."

Moving the market is only one of them. His other main concerns are about traffic, the size of the "fortress-like" shopping malls, and the lack of much provision beyond shopping. Homes, for instance: "There's been an explosion of loft living above the shops in Corporation Street. My firm's doing apartments in Bennett's Hill [in Birmingham's commercial quarter] and new homes have been built along the canal at Brindleyplace."

So why no residents in the new Bull Ring? "Because Hammerson, like LET before them, wants ease of management; mixed use is more complicated. The council's policy is to encourage mixed use, but it doesn't seem to be enforcing it."

Nor is there much evidence of the new enlightened policy towards traffic. Gone is the taxis-and-buses-only arrangement which Holyoak's organisation, Birmingham for People, persuaded LET to take up. Hammerson has revived a system whereby cars will still thunder past, albeit through a tunnel reminiscent of the underpasses that made Birmingham a mecca for motor racing enthusiasts in the 1980s.

"It's a reversion to the bad old days," says Holyoak. "They can't take the traffic too low because there are trains down there, running into New Street Station. So they're going to have to raise the road, creating an artificial horizon. Instead of the natural slope of the land, there'll be quite a steep gradient in the open space beyond the shopping malls which will require a complicated system of ramps and steps. Back in the 1950s, the Bull Ring was scruffy, but you could stand at the road junction and look down at the market and St Martin's Church."

Enter Herbert Manzoni, city engineer, surveyor and planning officer, whose masterplan would put Birmingham at the hub of a land fit for cars in the early Sixties. Manzoni Gardens are hemmed in on three sides by belching traffic. Plastic bags are stretched here and there between the tips of stunted rose bushes. A high wall at the far end is covered by a dismal mural and warrened by the entries to a network of inhospitable subways. Pedestrians knew their place in Manzoni's city. It was underground.

"This garden is not a good public space at the moment," says Holyoak. "We proposed a group of free-standing buildings - shops, offices, apartments - with little squares in between. But it looks as though it will go under one big shopping mall. Once you build over it, it's gone forever."

In 1989, top planners from round the world were invited to discuss the problems of Birmingham's city centre and how to solve them. Two years later, Les Sparks arrived from Bath to take over as director of planning and architecture and oversee some of the proposals to emerge from that meeting. Among them were the removal of the "concrete collar" that was the inner ring road, the development of urban "quarters" and the encouragement of more flexible mixed-use developments like Brindleyplace.

Sparks is conscious of a commercial concern made all the more pressing by the close proximity of the huge Merry Hill out-of-town shopping complex. Birmingham simply doesn't have enough shops for a city of its size. Astonishingly, it has only one department store. Hammerson is well aware of that. So is a rival developers, Land Securities, which is planning to open another shopping complex near the Bull Ring at what will be known as Martineau Galleries. Both have made overtures to John Lewis, which has confounded everyone by deciding to open a store in Solihull instead. Other top London stores are now being wooed.

And as the race intensifies to attract them to open in Birmingham, any considerations about public spaces and living accommodation are likely to take second place. "We've been unable to persuade Hammersons to incorporate housing into the Bull Ring development," says Sparks. "We've pressed it as far as we can."

The implication is startlingly clear: after 12 years of wrangling, Birmingham desperately wants to see building get underway. New Bull Ring. New shopping. Same old commercial pressures riding roughshod over the finer points of good planning.